Scientists Develop Bird-like Robots That Can Morph in Flight

The new aerial robots called Dubbed Quad-Morphings use two propeller-equipped rotating arms to mimic the flight patterns of birds and winged insects allowing them to navigate tight spaces.
Loukia Papadopoulos

Researchers from the Étienne Jules Marey Institute of Movement Sciences (CNRS /Aix-Marseille Université) have developed a bird-like robot that can morph during flight. The aerial machine can adapt itself quickly to navigate effectively through tight spaces.

The work was published in Soft Robotics this week and has been hailed as a world first. Applications from the study can be used in the introduction of large robots capable of adjusting to a variety of landscapes and environments including narrow passages.

Suited for exploration missions

This would mean, this new style of aerial robots would be ideally suited for all kinds of exploration missions. CNRS's researchers predict that the use of aerial robots in “constricted and cluttered areas for search and rescue, exploratory, or mapping operations will become more and more commonplace.”

The last few years have seen an increased focus on flying robots. Scientists have been exploring flying solutions for everything from agricultural to military-related issues while looking to nature for inspiration. 

Just last month, MIT developed a wind-powered unmanned nautical air-water vehicle to monitor the oceans of the world based on the flight patterns of the albatross bird. The bird can fly long distances without expending much energy because of the length of its wings.

The inspiration for CNRS's new advanced robots came from the flight abilities of birds and winged insects, evolved over years to allow the species to navigate their crowded and busy native environments such as forests. These animals and insects can quickly and efficiently alter their flight attitude, movements and positions to deal with all oncoming obstacles including small apertures.

Dubbed Quad-Morphing

CNRS’s new flying machines have the ability to reduce their wingspan in flight allowing them to pass through narrow spaces without the type of heavy energy-consuming steering requiring a robotic platform featuring a low-inertia. The new robots, named Dubbed Quad-Morphings, feature two propeller-equipped rotating arms that mimic the flight of helicopters.

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Meanwhile, a system designed with elastic and rigid wires enables the Dubbed Quad-Morphing “to change the orientation of its arms in flight so that they are either perpendicular or parallel to its central axis.” The robot alternates between the parallel position, to cross narrow stretches, and the perpendicular position, to stabilize its flight.

Researchers reported a Dubbed Quad-Morphing robot can reach a typical transversal speed of 4-5 km/h in indoor conditions and up to 9 km/h in external conditions. Each robot is equipped with a Quad-Morphing autopilot mechanism that controls its arms' positions, switching orientations when CNRS's 3D localization system identifies an upcoming tight passage to be crossed.

Miniature cameras on the robots can take 120 pictures per second and will, in the future, allow Quad-Morphings to recognize tight spaces independently, without the aid of CNRS. Testing for the new system begins this month.

Financial support for the project was provided by the French Equipex Robotex program. Tests were conducted at the AVM flying machine arena.



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