Robot That Flies and Swims Inspired By Unusual Seabird That Soars in Air and Water

common murre photo

Photo by christopher.woo via Flickr Creative Commons

The common guillemot is a seabird with a smart strategy for fishing. It can fly over the water with straight wings, but when it dives into the water to catch it's prey, it swims with bent wings. The bend in the wing reduces drag, and it is this morphing wing that has inspired researchers to come up with a robot that can both fly and swim -- something brand new in the biomimicry world. Richard Lock, Dr. Ravi Vaidyanathan and their team have looked into how the common guillemot changes the way it uses its wings when flying and diving, and are using their calculations and discoveries to design a robotic vehicle with a similar morphing wing.

common guillemot photo

Photo via Wikipedia

According to PhysOrg, "This simple change [in the bird's wing} results in a reduction of surface area, which, as the researchers calculated, reduces profile drag by as much as 50% and significantly reduces the overall power requirements. This ability enables the common guillemot to nest on land along the coast, fly up to 30 km out to sea, dive underwater, and flap its wings to swim and hunt for marine food."

The researchers hope that their study of this bird's unique abilities will help create a robotic vehicle that can be used to inspect underwater oil pipelines after flying out to remote oil rigs, or for "counter-terrorism purposes."

Challenges to Creating a Robot That Can Both Fly and Swim
First things first, they have to create a prototype, and the team is still facing challenges such as understanding the change in performance when moving from air to water, how to scale the robot to be able to fly using flapping locomotion, and of course how to power the thing.

"Implementing a power source that is light enough to allow aerial operations but provides sufficient power to enable the use of the locomotion mechanisms for any feasible length of time is a huge problem that we face," Lock told "Although not currently available, we believe that in time a suitable power source will be developed that allows aerial/aquatic vehicles to be developed."

So, it will be a very long time before we see a robo-common guillemot soaring above, and in, the seas, but the research proves that nature already has solutions in abundance for researchers looking for inspiration.

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