Related Articles

< Back

Fly Like A Bird

By ItsNotMagicItsScience
Image Source:


Since Icarus flew too close to the sun in Greek mythology some 2,000 years ago, man has tried to fly like the birds.

We don’t have any hard evidence to prove it but it’s very likely that early humans looked at the sky above them and wished that they could soar like birds, travelling huge distances at great speeds, able to hang and hover about trees and seas and to cross distant mountain planes. To those nomadic peoples, who could only move around on foot, birds must have seemed to come from another planet. And, in fact, many ancient cultures revered birds as a sign of destiny and change, their migration patterns foretelling the changing of the seasons or weather patterns.

But man never really mastered the art of flying like a bird. In Greek mythology Icarus flew too close to the sun, his wax wings melting as he tumbled out of the sky. And even Leonardo Da Vinci, whose incredible mind solved so many puzzles in the 15th Century was unable to master the mysteries of birds in flight.

Even today, with millions of people flying around the globe in aeroplanes the idea of flying like birds is still extremely mysterious and exotic. Of course, we know how they do it. Scientists have isolated the power-to-weight ratios, calculated the calories expended, they understand the amount of lift and force than needs to be applied to something that these creatures do naturally. But we really haven’t been able to replicate it.

As these videos show, even as the Wright Brothers and others defined the way we have travelled through the air for more than 100 years, others were trying wackier ways to fly.

Of course, present us with a problem and there will always be someone who carries on to find a solution. A German company called Festo, a specialist in bionics and energy efficiency has built the SmartBird, a robot, based on the herring gull that really does fly like the real thing.

It seems that the little magic trick that sets SmartBird apart from those hopeful pioneers is contained in its wings. It’s not enough to just flap your wings vigorously; they have to tilt and twist to catch the air and cut through it to create the lift. Which is exactly what SmartBird does. As the robot lifts its wings a small servo-motor twists its tips, generating what the company terms ‘a positive angle of attack’.

To create the thrust and increase the airflow along the wing, the motor quickly switches from a positive to a negative angle for a fraction of a second: enough to create the propulsion. It’s revolutionary enough that the company released this video illustrating how the SmartBird’s wings slice through the air:

And even though it looks like a prototype for a kid’s toy, there’s a very serious purpose behind SmartBird. In order to stay in the air for hours or even days at a time, every beat and stroke of a bird’s wings has to be as efficient and effective as possible. In the same way, sensors attached to SmartBird can analyse and fine-tune the amount of energy the robot needs to stay aloft.

That energy efficiency and knowledge about energy and resource management can then be applied to numerous other applications including motors and even hybrid drives and engines. And those technologies in turn are helping us to transform the way we use fossil fuels like natural gas, extracting the maximum potential of these fuels, extending their lifespan and reducing any unnecessary wastage. Not bad for a bird.

Check out the incredible SmartBird here.

Have your say: