New Robo Wing Could Revolutionize Flying Robots

By examining the wings of birds and bats, researchers from Stanford created a mechanism that could allow future flying robots to easily squeeze between obstacles.

Flying robots work just great until they bump into a tree or building and crash to the ground. Just ask the guy who smashed his quadcopter into the White House back in January. But a team of engineers has figured out how to make a robo-wing that folds up when it strikes an object, allowing micro-vehicles to behave more like a bird or a bat and keep on flying.

In the future, such a design could help make it easier for squads of micro-vehicles to fly through the forest to spy on bad guys (or moonshiners), or police to investigate a crime scene without entering the building first.

"The problem with flying robots is they cannot deal well with collisions," said David Lenkink, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University and a co-author on the paper published today in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomemetics, along with Amanda K. Stowers. "When they hit something hard they will break. But, if you add a hinge in the wing, it can resist super hard impacts."

The researchers added a small hinge to allow the wing to morph, or fold in on itself, when hitting a steel rod. The wing was then able to continue flying.

Lenkink had previously designed and built a vertical take-off and landing robot with flapping wings back in 2005. Stowers, a graduate student, took that design and pushed it a step further, Lenkink said.

"We kept on thinking about how to improve it. I did not expect such a simple solution. My student, Amanda Stowers, discovered it and showed it works across the scale from small to big," he added.

The joint allowed the robotic wing to fold at impact and, after impact, the flapping motion caused the wing to automatically re-extend. It's similar to how the flexible feathers of a bird allow for impact with obstacles without affecting the structural integrity of the wing.

The hinged wing also allows the device conserve energy, which is a key to any flying robot's success, according to Nikolai Konow, a post-doctoral investigator at Brown University's Aeromechanics and Evolutionary Morphology Laboratory.

"Any joule of energy you can save is at a premium," Konow said. "I'm sure there are challenges. But If you combine this hinge with springs, you could reach a configuration that is going to work. I definitely think it has promise. We are looking to go where robots haven't been able to go before."

The Stanford flapping robot is funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR), one of several Pentagon agencies interested in building war-fighting robots based on nature.

A new robotic wing can take a hit, morph, and keep flying.

Domestic uses for drones are growing to a wide range of applications not even considered a few years ago.