Research ArticleBIOMIMETICS

Soft biohybrid morphing wings with feathers underactuated by wrist and finger motion

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Science Robotics  16 Jan 2020:
Vol. 5, Issue 38, eaay1246
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aay1246

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Abstract

Since the Wright Flyer, engineers have strived to develop flying machines with morphing wings that can control flight as deftly as birds. Birds morph their wing planform parameters simultaneously—including sweep, span, and area—in a way that has proven to be particularly challenging to embody robotically. Previous solutions have primarily centered around the classical aerospace paradigm of controlling every degree of freedom to ensure predictable performance, but underperform compared with birds. To understand how birds accomplish wing morphing, we measured the kinematics of wing flexion and extension in common pigeons, Columba livia. The skeletal and feather kinematics show that the 20 primary and 20 secondary feathers are coordinated via approximately linear transfer functions controlled by wrist and finger motion. To replicate this control principle in a robot, we developed a biohybrid morphing wing with real feathers to understand the underlying design principles. The outcome, PigeonBot, embodies 42 degrees of freedom that control the position of 40 elastically connected feathers via four servo-actuated wrist and finger joints. Our flight tests demonstrate that the soft feathered wings morph rapidly and robustly under aerodynamic loading. They not only enable wing morphing but also make robot interactions safer, the wing more robust to crashing, and the wing reparable via “preening.” In flight tests, we found that both asymmetric wrist and finger motion can initiate turn maneuvers—evidence that birds may use their fingers to steer in flight.

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