Teaching electric eagles to soar

by November 25, 2010

A robotic gecko, built to validate the lizard's cat-like ability to right itself while falling

Ever since the mythical Icarus and his father Daedelus attempted to fly by affixing bird feathers to their arms with wax, humankind has systematically used nature as a model in its quest for the secret of flight — an approach that somehow never seemed relevant to the analogous problems of travelling rapidly over the ground or safely over water.

In recent years we’ve gotten much better at understanding how birds and other animals fly (or, in the case of the “gecko” pictured above, fall in a controlled fashion), and have been drawing lessons from such analyses that will end up significantly altering the designs of the flying machines we build. This is the focus of a special issue of Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, a publication that aims to facilitate the flow of ideas between disciplines like biology, design, and engineering. Though a technical journal, it contains a readable and very interesting introductory overview of the topic and the research projects featured in the issue, by guest editors David Lentink and Andrew Biewener:

[Daniel T.] Grant et al speculate that future designers will rely more and more on experimental biology for a myriad of applications. These include the devices and types of feedback used by nature to sense the flight environment, the distribution of structural elements and actuation to maintain a desired shape despite changes in loading, as well as the complex aerodynamics that result from non-steady biological flight performance. These workers believe that our basic understanding of the brain could play a major role in design, as biologists study information management and decision making in nature, which could provide inspiration for novel autopilot design. Hence, a deeper understanding of how a bird’s brain controls flight would be much welcomed.

The rest of the introduction is available as a PDF here.