The BionicSwifts are agile, maneuverable, and can even fly loops and steep turns. By interacting with a radio-based indoor GPS system, the five robotic birds are capable of moving autonomously in a coordinated pattern in a defined airspace.
As with its biological model, the focus when designing the robot birds was on the use of lightweight structures. After all, in both engineering and in nature, the less weight there is to move, the less material is required and the less energy is consumed. As such, the bionic birds weigh just 42 grams with a body length of 44.5 centimeters and a wingspan of 68 centimeters.
In order to replicate natural flight as closely as possible, the wings are modeled on bird feathers. The individual segments are made of an ultralight, flexible, yet very robust foam and overlap each other like the shingles on a roof. They are connected to a carbon quill and attached to the actual primary and secondary feathers, just like their real-life counterparts.
The individual segments fan out during the wing upstroke, allowing air to flow through the wing. This means the birds need less power to propel the wing upwards. The segments then close during the downstroke so that the flying robots can fly more powerfully. By closely replicating the wings of an actual bird, the BionicSwifts feature a flight profile far superior to previous flapping wing drives.
The bird’s body forms the compact housing for the flapping wing mechanism, the communication technology, as well as the components that control the flapping of the wings and the lifting movement of the tail. A brushless motor, two servo motors, the battery, the gear unit, and various circuit boards for radio, control, and localization are installed in an extremely compact space.
The intelligent interaction between the motors and the mechanical system makes it possible to precisely adjust the frequency of the flapping of the wings and the lifting angle for the various maneuvers, for example.
Thanks to radio-based indoor GPS using ultra-wideband technology (UWB), the BionicSwifts can fly safely and in a coordinated pattern. To achieve this, several radio modules are mounted in the space that fixed bases which locate each other and define the controlled airspace. In addition, each bird is equipped with a radio marker that sends signals to the bases, which can then locate the bird’s exact position and send the collected data to a central master computer that acts as a navigation system.
The system can use preprogrammed paths to plan and determine routes and flight paths for the birds. If the birds deviate from this flight path, for example due to a sudden change in ambient conditions such as wind or thermals, they immediately correct their flight path by intervening autonomously – without any human pilots. Radio-based communication makes it possible to precisely determine their position, even if there are obstacles and visual contact is partially lost. The use of UWB radio technology guarantees safe and interference-free operation.
The intelligent integration of flying objects and GPS routes creates a 3D navigation system that could be used in the connected factory of the future. For example, precisely localizing the flow of materials and goods can be used to improve process flows and anticipate bottlenecks. In addition, autonomous flying robots could potentially be used to transport materials – with their flight corridors, a way of optimizing the use of space within a factory.