First in flight: Maryland professor’s robot bird good enough to fool the real thing

Satyandra Gupta apparently loves birds so much he decided to build one. His skills as a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland probably didn’t hurt in his quest, and this week he announced the Robo Raven is now a reality. The robotic avian can dive and roll and looks so realistic that other birds have attacked it in flight.

Developing the robot bird was a decidedly start-and-stop affair. Over the course of eight years, design flaws caused incapacitating crashes in each iteration of the robot. 2007 saw the first successful flight by a prototype with simultaneously flapping wings. By 2012, Gupta and colleagues had succeeded in developing a model that could flap its wings independently. For the robot, at least, simultaneous wing-flapping was a drawback. Engineering independent wing-flapping behavior was time-consuming, and also made the robot heavier.

The Robo Raven has two motors that are coupled to coordinate the movements between the two wings. It can be programmed with arbitrary flight patterns, as can be seen in the video below. To compensate for the additional weight of a bigger onboard battery and microcontroller, the robotics team used lightweight 3D printed parts for the body. Aerodynamic optimization allowed the Robo Raven to reproduce observed flight behavior of real birds.

Like quadcopter drones, the future of flapping wing micro air vehicles may lie in surveillance, or in just looking really really cool.