SmartBird – robotic glider imitates herring gull’s flight

Markus Fischer and his team from Festo created a glider that flies like a bird.

Markus Fischer and his team at Festo wanted to build a powerful and ultralight glider modeled after bird flight. Instead of rotating propellers the goal was to use a flapping motion modeled after wing movement to achieve lift.

Fischer’s TED Talk A robot that flies like a bird discusses the design process, some development work and a few great demonstrations of SmartBird. The herring gull was the team’s inspiration for both flight and form of the glider.

The wingspan of SmartBird is around two meters with a length of one and a half meters. Carbon fiber is used as the skeleton for the bird and the entire aircraft weighs 450 grams.

Approximately 25 Watts are used in takeoff and during flight around 16 to 18 Watts are consumed. The company’s website says that a lithium polymer accumulator is used to power the bird, running at 7.4 Volts and 450 milliAmperes.

Hall effect sensors inside the wings and an accelerometer give positional feedback to the user. The wing is split into two zones and controlled with an MCU 32 bit microcontroller. Compact 135 motors and an intricate gearset control the wing movement, able to achieve 45 degree travel in 0.03 seconds.

SmartBird is an incredible achievement but it’s a little disappointing that more hasn’t been done with the ideas since late 2011. Markus Fischer and his team developed the glider as part of Festo’s Bionic Learning Network.

Engineering is very well represented here – Fischer and the corporate website both give credit to DaVinci and his ornithopter designs. Mechatronics is shown to be important as both the mechanical and electrical aspects of the project are discussed.

Fischer is an entertaining presenter and definitely a straightforward engineer. He delivers the information succinctly and accurately while occasionally letting out a dry understated wit. Hopefully Fischer, his team and his company have opportunity in the near future to use this technology in a more widespread application.