Robotic Hummingbirds Hover Like an Insect, Fly Like a Bird


Researchers from Purdue University wanted to design a robot that hovers like an insect and flies like a bird. What they needed was a hummingbird and the team's new robot not only mimics the hummingbird's movement, but it uses artificial intelligence to adapt on-the-fly.

At 12 grams, the robot is a little heavier than your average hummingbird, which is typically less than 2 grams. For the bird enthusiasts, however, you may notice that the paint job is strikingly similar to the markings of the Magnificent Hummingbird, which is similar in size and weight. The body was 3D-printed and the wings are made out of carbon fiber and laser-cut membranes.

The machine learning algorithms initially use computer simulations of natural hummingbird movement to learn how to fly, but the robots can also adapt. For example, even though the robot can't see (yet), it can map its surroundings by touching nearby surfaces with its wings. According to the researchers, this ability to maneuver in the dark could make it a useful tool in search and rescue missions. 

The robot is capable of lifting up to 27 grams, more than twice its current weight, which is going to be important because the bird is missing a few crucial components, such as the aforementioned sight… and power. Right now, the robot has to be tethered to a power source, which won't be very useful in those search and rescue missions, but the additional capacity will make it possible to add a battery, camera, or GPS.

The robot has two motors that independently control each wing. The researchers stress that it’s better suited to navigate confined spaces rather than travel long distances. The idea is that these little mecha-hummingbirds could one day be used to find survivors buried under rubble after an earthquake.

The researchers are also thinking smaller, and they’ve already developed a tiny, insect-sized version of their flying robot. It weighs less than 1 gram and it has a wingspan of about 3-4 cm.

On May 20, the researchers will present their work in Montreal at the 2019 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

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