Flapping Robotic Birdplane Lands Right on Your Hand
There are lots of innovative ways of landing robotic aircraft, from cables to parachutes to controlled crashes. Arguably, none of these ways are ideal, with ideal referring to an aircraft that makes a gentle landing just exactly where you want it. Say, right on the back of your hand.
Part of what makes this robot (under development at the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) so cool is the fact that it uses flapping wings for extra maneuverability and, one has to assume, at least a little bit of thrust. This bio-inspired model (based on birds and bats) can reorient its wings while gliding, providing glide-phase control without a bunch of extra complicated and heavy actuators. It's highly effective control, too, and allows a thrown micro air vehicle (MAV) to make a pinpoint landing on the back of an outstretched hand:
Getting robots to perch isn't a new idea, although this level of control certainly is. In the past, we've seen small robotic aircraft from Stanford's Biomimetics Lab that perform similar pitch-up stall-type maneuvers to perch on vertical surfaces using little claws, as well as planes that can perch on wires from MIT. And of course, there's that MAV from EPFL that just smashes head first into whatever it wants to land on and then sticks. But the type of perching that the UIUC team has come up with seems to be much more versatile (if a little bit lab constrained) way to do it, since the MAV is presumably capable of landing on more or less anything, just like a bird.
Of course, you can get this same type of precision performance out of rotorcraft, but you don't get anywhere close to the level of endurance that fixed wing aircraft offer, which is why this is potentially an ideal solution: long cruise times combined with pinpoint landings, and if they can get this thing to take off again, they'll have it made.
The technical details of this work can be found in A. Paranjape, J. Kim, and S.-J. Chung, "Closed-Loop Perching of Aerial Robots with Articulated Flapping Wings," IEEE Transactions on Robotics, under review, 2012, with a pre-release paper available here.