Research

Morphing Wings Using Real Feathers

PigeonBot's overlapping feathers are controlled by a wrist and finger joint and connected with elastic ligaments.

Although humanity has long been inspired by bird flight, most of our flying machines are nothing like birds. Engineers have struggled to recreate the ease with which birds are able to morph their wings’ characteristics as they change from one shape to another. Now researchers have built a biohybrid robot, PigeonBot, that uses actual pigeon feathers as part of its morphing design.

Many species of birds, including pigeons, have Velcro-like hooks in the microstructure of their feathers. These hooks help the flight feathers stick to one another and create a continuous wing surface that air cannot easily slip through, even as the wing drastically changes shape. By using actual feathers, PigeonBot shares this advantage.

PigeonBot also has a somewhat minimalist design in its articulation, using only a wrist and finger joint in each wing to control shape. The feathers are connected through an elastic ligament, which — along with their microstructure — allows them to smoothly change shape under aerodynamic loads. The end result is a remarkably capable and agile biorobot researchers can use to better understand how birds control their flight. (Image and research credit: L. Matloff et al. and E. Chang et al.; via NPR and Gizmodo)

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