It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's...Both?

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's...Both?

Julie Leibach
Published: 07/29/2011

Among the world's wonders, Leonardo da Vinci marveled at how birds fly, mulling over possible mechanics in what became his Codex on the Flight of Birds. He hit upon some relevant physical properties such as inertia and fluidity, going “straight to the heart of how birds fly, asking a series of very specific questions,” Richard Prum, an ornithologist at Yale University, told Audubon in "Decoding da Vinci." “It’s fantastic, almost eerie, how much progress he made.”

Imagine his reaction if da Vinci saw SmartBird (featured in the video above), a manmade airplane based on the look and movement of a herring gull. Created by a team led by Markus Fischer, of the German technology company Festo, the agile avi-plane flaps its 6.5-foot wings just like a bird. Weighing in at less than a pound, it’s ultralight, which contributes to its energy efficiency through air: Its overall energy consumption at takeoff is about 25 Watts, and 60-80 Watts (that’s like an incandescent light bulb) in flight.

Okay, awesome. But, why IS it? In short, judging by Festo’s website and a talk Fischer gave to a TED audience, it serves as an example of efficient automation based on ideas that researchers can apply elsewhere to solve bigger industrial problems. You’ve probably heard of biomimicry; SmartBird seems to embody the concept from wing to flapping wing.

Below are videos of two more animal-inspired designs by Festo.