The Stanford researchers' PigeonBot provides insight into the mechanics of bird wings

James Marshall
January 17, 2020

It's the kind of thing that could inform improved wing design for aircraft, which now rely in many ways on principles established more than a century ago. Certification: Lentink Lab / Stanford UniversityDrive video from aerodynamic tunnel tests using PigeonBot. So, they used dead pigeons to study how birds bend and extend their wings to change their shape. Scientists had thought the feathers might be controlled by individual muscles. But they learned that some aspects of bird wing motion are simpler than they expected.

Modern birds held three digits or fingers.

Unlike conventional aircraft wings, which are created to be stiff and rigid, a bird's wings are agile and bendable, and can change shape, angle and even the position of individual feathers, to manoeuvre.

The findings are some of the first evidence that the bird's fingers are important for steering.

Using 40 real pigeon feathers and a super light frame, Chang and the team created a simple flying machine that does not get elevation of its feathers, has a propeller in the front, but uses them to steer and maneuver with the same type of flexion and transformation like the birds themselves when sliding. When the wrist and finger move, all the feathers move, too.

In fact, the only birds who do not have the feather-fastening system are night-hunting predators like owls, who need to catch prey unawares in the silence of the dark, and appear to have made an evolutionary trade-off, swapping greater maneuverability for stealth. Birds can control the shape of their wings in order to change the flight style based on what they are trying to do.

It was locked as the wing expanded, again loose as the wing contracted, reinforcing the extended wing and making it resistant to disturbance.

This is because avian feathers have a locking mechanism that helps them stick together to form smooth, seamless wings that can face even the most turbulent of winds.

These tiny hooks are so small that they're hard to see even through a microscope. The team published this finding in a separate paper in the journal Science.

It's worth noting that the PigeonBot doesn't incorporate something you might associate with birds' wings - flapping. The designers were focused on incorporating the more subtle wrist-and-finger motions of the wings, so the bot appears to be gliding through the air while it's in flight. The team says that this is something that is "new to science and technology".

He sees it as a sign that drone designs of the future may move away from fixed-wing or rotary-wing technologies. The alignment of these feathers is what determines the shape of the wing. Moreover, they are also working on a new bio-inspired robot inspired by falcons which may have legs and claws, according to reports.

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