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Obie the Parrotlet

CAN BIRDS HELP US BUILD BETTER ROBOTS?

This three-part "Can Flying Birds Make Better Robots" blog series presents research and technology initiatives that seem a bit like something out of a sci-fi movie but are in-fact helping researchers understand the physics of flight and its application to the field of robotics and drones.

Since the days of Leonardo da Vinci, scientists have been trying to create birdlike aerial machines. Fast-forward to 2018, and we see robots being built to move and even look like birds. Sound a bit like science fiction to you?

Well consider Obie, a tiny parrotlet in laser goggles helping scientists discover a new phenomenon in the physics of flight. Obie’s little orange goggles are adorned with tiny reflectors and fit securely over his little feathered head. But Obi hasn’t donned his goggles to make a fashion statement—instead he’s a participant in a Stanford University experiment where he flies through a sheet of lasers so researchers can see how the air around him behaves as he moves.

Graduate students trained this member of the second smallest parrot species, so they could precisely measure the vortices it creates during flight. Their results, published in the Dec. 6 issue of Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, reveal some interesting facts about the way animals generate enough lift to fly. This in turn, is of interest to the robotics community from a flying robot and drone design perspective.

Obie the Parrotlet

Scientists rely on studies such as this to interpret the airflow generated by flying animals, and specifically to understand how animals support their weight during flight. The results are commonly referenced for work on flying robots and drones inspired by the biology of these animals.

Watch Obie Fly on YouTube

Two other robotic bird initiatives discussed in this blog series are Robirds, a Netherlands initiative that has created robotic birds of prey that look and fly exactly like their real biological counterparts and a SmartBird initiative that decodes bird flight to develop a machine that could take off, fly and land using only its own wing-flapping power. So stay tuned!

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