Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Thursday, December 25, 2014
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Bionic Bird Takes to the Skies 

A shadow darkens the ground in front of you, and reflexively you raise your gaze skyward. What at first glance appears to be a seagull — which indeed looks and flies like a real bird — turns out to be something else entirely. A new kind of flying creature has emerged, a 21st century hybrid of science and nature.

SmartBirdThe mechanical gull, known as SmartBird, was highlighted in a recent NPR article. The elegant flying machine was built by the design team at Festo, a German-based company that combines imagination and engineering know-how to create amazingly life-like replicas. Modeled after the herring gull and constructed of carbon fiber and plastic foam, this mechanical marvel weighs just over 17 ounces and has a wingspan of six feet across. But what makes this bionic bird so amazing is its ability to take off and land by flapping its wings, just like an actual living bird.

In order to accomplish this design first, the engineers needed to create wings that torque and twist in many different places. This is made possible by an active articulated torsional drive unit, which works in tandem with a complex control system to give the flying machine the lift, propulsion and flight attributes of a real bird.

Festo’s engineering team has been releasing these life-like designs into the wild at a rate of approximately one per year. Among their inventions is an automated elephant trunk that can bend and curl and even perform fine-motor tasks, like placing an egg into an outstretched palm. An oversized mechanical floating jellyfish, called the AirJelly, relies on a helium balloon to float and pulse in true jellyfish fashion. There’s a water-based jellyfish replica, called an AquaJelly, an AquaPenguin, and an AquaRay. And rounding out the mechanical menagerie are an array of human body parts, including mechanical torsos, arms and hands, and the Festo Humanoid.

Despite the aesthetic appeal of these creations, Festo is a for-profit company; it’s not likely that SmartBird and its mechanical cousins are mere objets d’art. One wonders what’s in store for them. Although not cited in the NPR article, military and defense applications are not difficult to fathom; yet so are life-affirming innovations, such as medical training devices and advanced prosthetics. I’ll leave you with the words of the author of the NPR article, Robert Krulwich, who stated, “Normally, such border bending projects make me nervous, but not these. These machines seem like celebrations of life.”

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