Designer Rainer Mugrauer holds the belly of a grey seagull in his two hands. The seagull is one meter long and its wing span measures two meters. He lifts the bird above his head and with a slight shove lets it loose. The bird takes off, flutters its wings and flies twice around the auditorium of Festo, an automation company located in the city of Esslinger, not far from the city of Stuttgart, in southwest Germany. The seagull flies back to the designer’s hands, folds its wings, and keeps still. The seagull is a mechanical bird, called SmartBird, which runs on a battery that is slightly bigger than a mobile phone battery. This is the first time that the flight of a bird is decoded and a prototype takes off on its own. A number of companies are building machines inspired on animals to reduce energy consumption by improving the design, the materials and the manufacturing methods.
On the morning of October 10, approximately 20 people – most of them foreign journalists were observing the Smartbird. This is not a big audience, especially when compared to the number of people who watched the bird’s maiden flight in April 2011 at a technology fair in Germany. In July, hundreds of people stood up to applaud the bird flying above the auditorium of the branch office of non-governmental organization Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED), in Edinburgh, Scotland. Flying above a city park, the mechanical bird attracted dozens of seagulls that started flying around it.
The SmartBirds elegance and simplicity are impressive. Made of carbon fiber, it weighs 450 grams. Mugrauer removes the bird’s head and shows the wires and gears that move the wings. Sensors send out an alert to warn about nearby objects during the flight. “We were the first people to decode the flight of a bird”, says engineer Heinrich Frontzek, the company’s head of corporate communication. He explains that Wolfgang Send, a physicist from an aeronautic company, had theoretically deciphered the flight of a seagull, but had not found anyone willing to build a mechanical bird capable of flying alone.
Prior to the existence of the SmartBird, other people had designed similar objects. Italian engineer and artist Leonardo da Vinci drew his wooden bird in 1485, but the bird was never built. German engineer Otto Lilienthal built primitive gliders and went on approximately two thousand flights; on August 9, 1896, Lilienthal fell from a height of 17 meters while flying a glider, broke his backbone and died on the following day.
In April 2006, researchers from Canada’s University of Toronto, launched the first ornithopter, a glider whose wings move in the manner of birds’ wings. In October 2010, engineers from the U.S.’s University of California at Berkeley showed a 10-centimeter long mechanical insect weighing 25 grams, with the objective of detailing the evolution of bird flights. This was described in an article published in the October issue of Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.
The mechanical seagull exemplifies a new concept for products that Festo plans to start manufacturing as soon as possible. “We want to learn from nature, because nature does not waste energy, says Frontzek. Another objective is to foster creativity. Frontzek says he is encouraging German engineers to think out of the box” and he says that he has been successful in this respect. Indeed, he already has new things to show, such as claws and flexible mechanical arms, inspired on the elephant trunk; the claws and arms can hold an apple without tearing it to pieces. In the last four years, the engineers from Festo have built mechanical penguins, medusas, and sting rays, which in turn inspired new automation energy-saving equipment, such as valves, sensors, and compressed air treatment systems.
In October, a robot spider with a camera, developed at Berlin’s Fraunhofer Institute, took its first steps in public at a technology fair in Frankfurt, held from November 29 to December 2. The engineers from the Fraunhofer Institute believe that the mechanical insect could be used to burrow into small holes caused by the destruction of houses and buildings and provide images that could help to rescue survivors.
The production of electronic animals is one of the possibilities of a field called bionics or biomechanics, which inspired the television series Cyborg, The Six Million Dollar Man, aired on TV from 1974 to 1978, and an owl in the 1982 film Blade Runner. The owl misled policeman Deckard, played by actor Harrison Ford.
Bionics and biomechanics are sometimes mistaken for biomimetics, another name given to man’s efforts to imitate nature and produce useful things. This was how in 1941 Swiss engineer George de Mestral created Velcro, a fastening tape with small hooks used to fasten clothes and shoes, after having observed how grass seeds fastened themselves to his dog’s hair. A more recent example: in 2005, Mercedes-Benz exhibited a concept car called Bionic, whose shape resembles that of a fish. The car uses 20% less fuel than an equivalent model.
“In the field of chemistry and biology, we are already familiar with processes that, inspired by photosynthesis, aim at obtaining the clean generation of fuel hydrogen”, says Maria del Pilar Taboada Sotomayor, a professor of the Chemistry Institute of Paulista State University (Unesp) in Araraquara, who works in this field. “The substitution of enzymes has been studied extensively in sensor devices, used to monitor different types of compounds of clinical and environmental interest. The idea is to substitute biological compounds with catalysts that appropriately imitate biological catalysis.
The mechanical animals resemble toys, but there is always a problem that supposedly they should help solve. Frontzek says he proposed that Festo’s research and development team explore the possibility of making the flexible arms resemble an elephant’s trunk, as a way to reduce the number of incidents caused by industrial robots’ rigid arms. The research and development team liked the idea and worked for three years, together with other companies and universities, until a prototype was produced, which was then shown to the public. Frontzek points out that the objective is not to manufacture birds or arms that resemble elephant trunks, but rather to benefit from the acquired knowledge to build more efficient, energy-saving machines. “Like a conceptual car, the important thing is not the car itself but the technology that is inside it”. With annual sales totaling approximately 1.8 billion (R$ 4.3 billion), Festo invests approximately 150 million (R$ 360 million) every year in the research and development of new products.
The priority now is to reduce energy consumption whenever possible and, with the same objective, revert production processes and reduce the weight of the machines the company manufactures. According to Nico Pastewski, the company’s innovation manager, a project developed in collaboration with other companies has already led to a 20% reduction in energy consumption in compressed air machines since 2007. “We can save energy by implementing simple measures. Another idea in the pipeline is to build self-controlling machines – nowadays, machines are controlled by a central mechanism or that function in a decentralized manner, as illustrated by the mechanical bird.”
A difficult part of the job is to wear down the resistance not of the materials, but of people. This is why Peter Post, head of strategic research programs, considers it crucial for internal and external research teams working together on a project to carry on an open dialogue. “We need to keep our minds open”, he says. “We can’t be concerned about others trying to steal our ideas”. Even attuned teams do not always find solutions for production issues, such as those related to batteries, which still need toxic materials. “We do not have any brilliant ideas to solve this issue”, he acknowledges. “My apologies.”
Festo’s shows resemble the style of Thomas Edison, the American inventor and businessman, who used to bring together experts from different fields (physicists, engineers, lawyers) and then give them the materials and the freedom they needed to work. Edison would announce his inventions – such as the incandescent electric light bulb, the gramophone, and dozens of others even before they were ready, just to prepare consumers for the novelties. “A German proverb says: make positive things and talk about them”, says Eberhard Veit, Festo’s management committee chairman. At the entrance to the company, a cart travels over the lawn and amuses visitors. In reality, the contraption is a lawn mower driven by compressed air.
The journalist travelled at the invitation of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD)
PETERSON, K. et al. A wing assisted running robot and implications for avian flight evolution. Bioinspiration and Biomimetics. out. 2011.