arnab gupta

The Robot that flies like a bird

August 02, 2011

We’ve always wanted to fly, haven’t we? We’ve watched the birds in the sky, and thought, “Wish we could fly—just like them!” We’ve succeeded; we’ve built out flying machines; we’ve flown in the air.

But not like a bird.

The way a bird flies is quite complex, and difficult to implement in human flight. We’ve devised alternate methods—jet engines and rigid wings. But finally, technology and mathematics have caught up, and we have a robot that flies just like a bird—by flapping its wings!

Of course, this is no easy feat. Bird flight is very efficient, and the shape of the wings, position of feathers (used as “flight controllers”), mechanics of the flapping motion—all of it combines to give the languid end result of a bird in flight. Imagine—the mechanical bird in the video apparently runs at 80% efficiency! (That’s a very high figure.)

Having said that, I hope we don’t fixate ourselves with perfecting bird flight per se. It’s great to master the technology; it’s great to be able to make working devices out of that technology; hopefully they’ll be able to make it even at larger scales, while keeping the same high efficiency. But the whole idea of biomimetics, I think, should be bio-inspiration, not bio-copy.

After all, nature has chosen certain mechanisms for its processes—but they don’t signify the best possible methods. They only signify the techniques that were found to do the job. Since it did the job efficiently, it stuck through the evolutionary chain. But had an even better mechanism been “stumbled upon”, then that would be the technology we’d be trying to copy and develop!

All I’m saying is: let’s learn the technology perfectly, and then let’s make it our own. Let’s fly even better than the birds.