Upgraded Bionic Bird Mimics Real-World Swallow, Flies 3D Swarm Maneuvers With Tricks

Festo's new bionic bird replicates nature and flies like real swallows — using GPS for swarm flight.
Brad Bergan

A new GPS-guided robot bird called BionicSwifts performs aerial acrobatics using swarm technology without human input, according to a listing on the Festo website.


Festo robot bird flies life-like tricks without humans

The BionicSwift robot swallow is nimble, agile, and even performs tricks like loops and tight turns — all autonomously, using a radio-based indoor GPS. But the real trick comes in the swarm action.

Together with another five robot swallows, the five can chart independent paths based on coordinated real-time analysis. This is significant because it allows us to see the swarm movement of natural birds in action, using technology that guides itself.

Ultralight flying robots based on the real swallows

While designing the robotic birds, the team focused on using a lightweight structure — embracing the foundational structure of their biological role models. This works because the field of engineering itself typically works to model nature: the less weight there is to move, the lower energy consumption and materials are required.

With a body length of just 44.5 centimeters (17.5 inches) and a wingspan of 68 centimeters (26.7 inches), this new 42-gram (1.48-ounce) bionic bird is a serious upgrade on an earlier model from 2012.

Efficient flight achieved with aerodynamic plumage

To manage difficult flight maneuvers without breaking with their true-to-life counterparts, the bionic birds' wings were built to work like the plumage of birds. The lamellae are built from ultralight and flexible yet robust foam, lying one over the other like shingles on house roofs.

Held together with carbon quill, they are connected to the hand and arm wings, just like real-world swallow wings.

When the wings stroke upward, the separate lamellae fan out to let air flow through the wings. This shows how birds need less force to pull a wing up. When the wings stroke downward, the lamellae close up to generate more power to create lift. This replica-level engineering gives the BionicSwift a superior flight profile to earlier wing-flapping artificial birds.

Fest BionicSwift Wings
If we follow the blue-highlighted lamellae, the full range of motion looks like a true-to-life replica. Source: BionicSwifts / Festo

Integrating flight in tight spaces

The bionic bird's body consists of a compact replication of the swallow's wing-flapping mechanism, along with communication technology, an elevator, control components for wing flapping, and the tail. Two servomotors, a brushless motor, the gearbox, a battery, and several circuit boards for radio, localization, and control are also installed within the tiny artificial bird.

The motors interact intelligently, which allows (for example) the precise adjustment of wing-beat frequency and the elevator's angle of attack for incredible maneuvers.

Festo BionicSwift Swarm GPS
Notably, the bionic birds coordinate autonomously for swarm flight. Source: BionicSwifts / Festo

GPS-guided flight coordination for swarm flight

Using an indoor GPS and radio equipped with ultra-wideband technology (UWB) helps the bionic birds coordinate for safe flying — avoiding collisions with one another or the surrounding structure. Several radio modules are installed in a single room to accomplish this. Working as anchors, the modules act as data-anchors that locate one another and define the controlled airspace.

Directed by this information, each robotic bird (identified with a radio marker) sends signals to the anchors, which then locate their exact locations, and sends collected data to a master computer that works like a navigation system.

This allows for preprogrammed routes, keeping the birds ready to adjust from sudden environmental influences like thermals or wind — reacting autonomously to achieve a new flight solution, without a single human touch. This works even if visual contact is partially blocked by obstacles.

While this 3D navigation system could be adapted and implemented in networked factories of tomorrow, Festo's BionicSwift robot birds are the sleek and minimalist fringe of an emerging industry of autonomous drones and bionic robots. As they continue their collective intrepid flight into the future, we should expect more if not most to follow Festo's example — looking to nature itself for the unrivaled simplicity of natural evolution.

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