Observatory: A Wing That Can Recover From Mid-Air Collisions

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A new robotic wing, inspired by those of birds and bats, recovers from mid-air collisions with a simple mechanism: a pin joint that allows it to bend.

Birds and bats maneuver through forests easily and recover from collisions with branches because their wings fold upon impact, then unfold. An artificial wing “beats back and forth, but it doesn’t fold,” said David Lentink, a mechanical engineer at Stanford University.

Using a 3-D-printer, the researchers designed a joint that connects part of the wing nearest to the body to the part farthest away, much like a real bird’s. He and his colleagues described the robot wing in a study published in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.

“When this hits something, it won’t break,” Dr. Lentink said. “It will fold and then fall back into place within a wing beat.”

His graduate student and co-author, Amanda Stowers, tested the wing by hitting it with a steel rod. With every blow, the wing bent and then re-extended itself.

Based on mathematical calculations, the researchers say the design should work well regardless of the wing’s size.

Dr. Lentink and Ms. Stowers now hope to try the wing in flight, attached to a robot. “The goal of the project is to come up with solutions to fly through the forest,” Dr. Lentink said.

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