Posted June 26, 2015

It's a bird, it's a drone, it's... Robird!

Birds like geese, gulls and crows that damage crops and endanger airplanes, could be chased away by a drone resembling a falcon or an eagle. Dutch startup Clear Flight Solutions is working on a 'Robird' that looks like a falcon and really flies by flapping its wings. Now researchers at Twente University have created the first computer model of the robots' wing movements and the air flow around it. This brings autonomous flight of said Robird one step closer.

So far Clear Flight Solutions (CFS) has a prototype that can be flown by a pilot using a remote control. It has a 3D printed skin resembling a peregrine falcon. It can mimic a peregrine falcon's stationary flight with heavy wing flapping, just before it dives to catch a snack. It's all part of giving the birds a good scare, one they won't get used to too easily. Watch it here.!

Everybody knows scarecrows don't work. Many alternatives don't work either, such as loud bangs, moving contraptions and distress calls. Birds get used to everything. Even real falcons are sometimes used, and even they appear to have a couple disadvantages, one being that they are lazy: they only actively hunt when they're hungry. Otherwise they just float around - in a way that birds instinctively know poses no danger - if they take flight at all.

CFS's Robird can threateningly fly around all day and never gets tired. In tests it has been shown to scare away the majority of problematic birds near farms, air fields and waste incinerators. Not that everybody is ecstatic already. Nature conservation organizations wonder how real birds of prey will react. CFS's prospective customers want to know how the nuisance birds will behave in the long term. Will they adapt after all? Or will a hard-wired instinct prevent that? CFS's co-founder Nico Nijenhuis is confident it will.

One obstacle is the fact that Robird still needs a pilot. CFS is working to solve that problem. Robird should be able to fly around on its own, for hours at least. But flapping wing flight is poorly understood and difficult to model, and therefore hard to control digitally and automatically. CFS has so far managed to model only parts of the process, Now a research group at Twente University in Enschede has managed to create a computer model of the whole process of flapping wing motion. They had Robird perform its  motions a wind tunnel in Enschede and a vacuum chamber at ESA in Noordwijk. Differences between the behaviour in the wind tunnel and the vacuum chamber logically were to do with aerodynamics. This enabled the group to create a working model, essential to enable autonomous flight.

As is often the case, there is some uncertainty about when there will be a full-blown product. Last year, Wired wrote that a sellable Robird could be ready by the end of the year. Now CFS's website says: 'Development and trials will continue throughout 2014 and the first half of 2015.' Whenever you're ready, guys. We can't wait.

About Herbert Blankesteijn

Herbert Blankesteijn is a technology journalist from the Netherlands who has written for many prominent Dutch newspapers. He presented and directed television and radio programmes and has 10 books to his name. Herbert is interested in nascent fields such as 3D printing, drones, robotics and the private space business.