Flying like a bat

Frankenbird at the university

Within this context of renewed scientific interest in flapping wings, a researcher from Greg Dimitriadis’ team, Norizham Abdul Razak, has developed an exceptional tool: a robot bird, which the researchers in Liège are hesitating to call “Frankenbird" for fear of giving it a bad reputation. The aim of the machine isn’t to terrorise the population, but to simulate a bird in flight. Frankenbird – the result of two years’ work – resembles a large winged suppository, with a one-metre wingspan and 60 centimetres in length. Inside the robot, and electric motor and high precision mechanics provide the wings with two different movements: an up and down movement and a pitching movement. “In nature, the combination of these two movements increases flight efficiency”, explains Greg Dimitriadis. With this exceptional machine, the researchers in Liège will be able to study flight from almost every angle. “For instance, we can modify the rhythm of the beating, the combination of movements and of course the shape and size of the wings.” Frankenbird is designed to fly with wings measuring from several dozen centimetres, up to approximately one metre. “We had to make a choice”, explains Greg Dimitriadis. “In nature, the largest birds have a wingspan of three or four metres and the smallest ones a few centimetres. We chose the intermediate size.”

Frankenbird is an amazing research tool that will perhaps help aeronautical engineers to develop the drones of tomorrow. On the other hand, it can also shed light on the distant past, especially on dinosaurs, the ancestors of birds. One of the major questions in animal palaeontology is indeed to find out how certain prehistoric animals flew, such as pterosaurs. Did they flap their wings? Did they take off by running or did they launch themselves off a cliff? Researchers at the University of Manchester are currently reconstructing a computer model of a pterodactyl based on a genuine skeleton.  The software used allows them to extrapolate biological data such as muscle structure, body fat, skin and even the animal’s kinematics. The shape and size of the wings will be calculated. “Based on this computer model”, Greg Dimitriadis explains, “our colleagues in Manchester will create the wings of a pterosaur that we can test with our Frankenbird.” The flight of an animal that lived several hundreds of millions of years ago, reproduced in a laboratory by a robot, is a fascinating research area. The work has just begun.

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