Inspired by the feet and legs of the peregrine falcon, a team of engineers at Stanford University has created robotic talons that when attached to a drone enable the flying machine to perch and carry objects like a bird.
Just like birds, the Stereotyped Nature-Inspired Aerial Grasper, or SNAG, has two legs that can move independently. And in place of bones, it has a 3D-printed structure – which took 20 iterations to perfect. Meanwhile, motors and a fishing line stand in for muscles and tendons.
The strong, high-speed clutching action takes no more than 20 milliseconds to trigger. When SNAG hits a perch, an accelerometer in the foot lets the grasper know it has made an impact and that it should initiate the process to balance itself. This activates the balancing algorithm, which tilts the drone forward to avoid falling – again, just like real birds.
This advancement is important because it would allow multirotor drones to conserve battery power in situations where the only other option is to hover – for example, during search and rescue missions or while monitoring wildfires.
Researchers are also optimistic about possible applications in the field of environmental studies. William Roderick, who has worked on both animal-inspired robots and bird-inspired drones at Stanford, explains:
Part of the underlying motivation of this work was to create tools that we can use to study the natural world. If we could have a robot that could act like a bird, that could unlock completely new ways of studying the environment.
To that end, researchers attached a temperature and humidity sensor to SNAG, which Roderick used to record the microclimate in Oregon.
Let’s watch SNAG in action:
This, of course, is not the first time that engineers have taken inspiration from nature when building drones. Modern robotics is riddled with examples of biomimicry – the practice of looking to nature for inspiration to solve design problems in a regenerative way. Take a look at the new Parrot ANAFI Ai drone for example:
The obstacle avoidance system in this insect-inspired drone mimics flying species that have their head located at the front of their frame, extending the view of the rest of the body – especially the wings. The placement of the head in such a manner allows the eyes (sensors) to have an excellent field of view in all directions.
Meanwhile, scientists are also convinced that the drones of the future would do well to mimic a 300-million-year-old superior flying machine: the dragonfly.
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