NOEL KING, HOST:
For decades, scientists have been trying to create machines that mimic the way birds fly. A team from Stanford University has gotten one big step closer. NPR's Merrit Kennedy has the story.
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MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: The PigeonBot glides through the air using its graceful, feather-covered wings to make sharp turns and dip up and down. The team that created it says it's the most advanced bird-inspired robot ever. It's a huge design challenge to mimic birds in flight. The way their wings move is far superior to airplane wings, says Stanford mechanical engineering professor David Lentink.
DAVID LENTINK: It actually enables birds to fly further, longer, maneuver much better.
KENNEDY: Lentink led a team that studied the unique mechanics of birds' wings so they could incorporate these features into a robot. Their research was published this week in Science and Science Robotics. They used pigeon cadavers to try to figure out how birds control the motion of their feathers during flight. The researchers discovered that when they moved to the bird's wrist and finger...
LENTINK: All the feathers moved, too, and they do this automatically. And that's really cool.
KENNEDY: They replicated this on the PigeonBot using pigeon feathers, springs and rubber bands connected to a wrist-and-finger structure. The design was put to the test in a wind tunnel.
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KENNEDY: And it turned out to be extremely robust. The team also found that most birds' feathers can act sort of like Velcro. At certain moments during flight, such as when a bird is extending its wings, tiny hooks on the feathers lock them together to prevent gaps from forming.
LENTINK: It requires a gigantic force to separate them.
KENNEDY: And when the feathers unlock, it sounds like this.
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ALIREZA RAMEZANI: The work is very impressive.
KENNEDY: Alireza Ramezani, an engineering professor at Northeastern who recently helped make a bat-inspired robot, says that flying bots inspired by animals could be especially useful in the future for situations when drones are operating near humans. After all, feathers are a lot softer than metal wings.
Merrit Kennedy, NPR News.
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