Plenty of robotics researchers are building “biomimetic” robots patterned after creatures in the natural world. However, according to Professor Soon-Jo Chung of the California Institute of Technology, there was only ever one animal he was really interested in mimicking.
“Bat flight is really the holy grail of aerial robots, evidenced by their abilities to perform complex flying maneuvers such as upside down perching and rapid turning maneuvers,” he told Digital Trends. “Bats also have very complex wing motions, with more than 40 joints and very thin membrane wings.”
Professor Chung is part of a team of engineers from Caltech and the University of Illinois who have developed a flapping bat-like robot that would make Bruce Wayne proud. A paper about their “Bat Bot” was published this week in the journal Science Robotics.
Unlike remote-controlled airplanes, the Bat Bot is entirely autonomous. Comprised of silicone wings, 3D-printed joints, and carbon-fiber “bones,” it is able to stitch together its various “motion primitives” (a combination of amazing maneuvers, turning and straight flight) to perform smooth continuous motion. It is even able to use a micro-camera to track certain objects, as well as possessing the ability to perform a perched landing maneuver using flapping wings.
In other words it can behave like… well, a bat.
“We are not trying to promote all future drones should look like a bat or should fly like a bat,” Chung continued. “Strict mimicry is not the goal. As an aerospace robotics engineer, I would like to learn from biological systems to improve the current technologies and designs of small aerial drones. For example, we could use these wing-morphing mechanisms using independent wing folding and leg motions to come up with a better way of controlling a future airplane.”
Soft-winged drones like Bat Bot offer up some exciting possibilities, such as being deployed in close proximity to humans in locations like construction sites. It could also potentially be used as an autonomous assistant for humans.
Because it doesn’t use high-speed rotors or emit any other loud sounds, it would be comparatively unobtrusive: making it potentially valuable in areas ranging from surveillance and reconnaissance to gathering scientific measurements.
Now if the researchers could just get it to issue spoken alerts, read by longtime Batman voiceover artist Kevin Conroy, it would be absolutely perfect!