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Dead Bird Drones May Get Artificial Intelligence and 5G

Research with robotized bird cadavers could benefit the aviation industry.

Researchers at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology who have converted dead birds into flying drones are now considering the possibility of adding an array of technologies, including cameras, fifth-generation (5G) mobile and artificial intelligence.

Mostafa Hassanalian, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the institute, which is commonly known as New Mexico Tech, initially purchased bird parts—heads, wings and feathers—from Amazon and attached them to existing drones to make them appear and fly more like living birds. He then acquired birds that died of natural causes from a taxidermist and attached two different types of motors, one for flapping another for soaring.

His research may ultimately prove useful for military or border surveillance purposes. They might also monitor wildlife—migrating geese, for example—without using noisier drones that scare or pose hazards to living birds. Additionally, cadaver drones might lead living flocks away from airports, where they pose a safety hazard. And larger birds with strong talons may carry packages or payloads. “If you look at the eagles, they can catch a goat and they can carry it,” Hassanalian noted.

Hassanalian emphasizes the potential benefits of environmental monitoring and aviation. “We can have more nature-friendly drones. If we use artificial materials, they cannot fly with the same characteristics as the birds. We can get the taxidermy birds, play with them, do the reverse engineering, make them alive again and use them as a drone,” Hassanalian said.

He points out that the United States has policies against ownership of dead eagles or other avian predators, but predatory birds may be the best solution for driving flocks from airports. “If you get permission to, for example, use a dead eagle or any predatory bird through the taxidermist and turn them into a drone and fly them around the airport, you no longer have birds flying around the airplanes.”

So far, the team has focused on design aspects to make sure the birds can fly. That includes reverse engineering to determine such factors as wing flapping angles and frequency and flying speed of living birds. The next step is to see what types of technology will be integrated into the drones. That could include cameras installed under the necks or in the eyes for information gathering.

The drones can currently fly for about 20 minutes, so the team intends to research how birds land, which may allow the bio-bots to stop for a recharge before taking off again. Additionally, they might be able to extend the range by integrating 5G capabilities and artificial intelligence.

“These are the technologies that we are currently envisioning for the future direction for how we can make these more efficient. Machine learning or artificial intelligence could help them to save more energy or adjust their flight mode in order to determine when they should glide, when they should hover, when they should flap. This is something that probably in the next couple of years we will be working on,” Hassanalian offered. “With 5G and artificial intelligence, we think this will be a revolution in this type of drone.”

Researchers do not know yet how living birds will react to the drones. If predatory birds attack, added technologies may also help the bio-drones escape.

Bird-related research also could dramatically benefit the aviation industry. Something as simple as the paint job on a plane may prove revolutionary, Hassanalian asserts. He explains that different species of birds have distinct color patterns in part for attracting mates and for camouflage, but it turns out those color patterns also affect aerodynamics.

For example, black feathers and white feathers absorb and reflect heat differently, affecting the air around the bird. Black feathers on top of the wings heat the air above the bird and provide more lift. Whether the wingtips are black or the underside white makes a major difference for a bird. And some of those differences may apply to aircraft as well.

“Lots of airlines right now just randomly colorize their winglets. Now, if this theory works on commercial airplanes, if you just paint it black, if you have 0.0001 percent drag reduction, it’s a huge revolution in the aviation industry because a small amount of drag reduction is a huge statement in money, less pollution and less fuel,” Hassanalian said.

Converting dead animals into machines may be the natural next step in the evolution of biology-inspired robotics. A separate research team at Rice University is using dead wolf spiders as robots with super-strong gripping powers. “It happens to be the case that the spider, after it’s deceased, is the perfect architecture for small-scale, naturally derived grippers,” Daniel Preston of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering said in a university press release.

The release explains that Preston’s lab specializes in soft robotic systems that often use nontraditional materials, instead of hard plastics, metals and electronics. “We use all kinds of interesting new materials like hydrogels and elastomers that can be actuated by things like chemical reactions, pneumatics and light,” Preston, who could not be reached for comment, said in the release. “This area of soft robotics is a lot of fun because we get to use previously untapped types of actuation and materials. The spider falls into this line of inquiry. It’s something that hasn’t been used before but has a lot of potential.”

Wolf spiders can lift more than 130% of their body weight and sometimes much more. The researchers had the grippers manipulate a circuit board and even lift another spider. The Rice team says the spider cadavers could be used for manipulating microelectronics and noted that the biological material is biodegradable, which reduces waste.

Early prototypes of the bird drones used wings and feathers purchased from Amazon.com. Credit: New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology
Early prototypes of the bird drones used wings and feathers purchased from Amazon.com. Credit: New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology

The Rice researchers have dubbed this new area of study “necrobotics,” but Hassanalian prefers the terms bio-drones or bio-birds to describe his work.

Hassanalian’s team has not reached out to the Rice scientists, but the work on spiders inspired them to study the bird drones’ legs and gripping ability.

The research by both teams is somewhat similar to projects adding electronics to living creatures, creating cyborgs out of giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches and dragonflies. In the case of the cockroaches, scientists at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, used National Science Foundation funding to develop software that allowed the bugs to map unknown environments based on the swarming instincts of cyborg insects, or biobots. The idea was to map areas without access to GPS navigational signals for search and rescue missions.

“They are live insects, but what has been done to them is that there are small backpacks that ride right on top of them, and they have electrodes attached to their antennae and their abdomens,” Edgar Lobaton, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, explained in a 2013 interview. “Signals are sent to the electrodes, and that is what makes them stop or move forward or turn to the right or left.”

In 2017, scientists with The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Ashburn, Virginia, partnered on a Draper-funded project that attached similar electronic backpacks to dragonflies, creating a brand-new type of micro aerial vehicle. Harnessing the power of nature, the hybrid system was smaller, lighter and stealthier than most man-made systems and could prove valuable for military reconnaissance and a variety of other missions.

A lot of bio-inspired robotic research has focused on man-made materials and designing systems that mimic the behavior, the best they can, of insects, birds, animals and fish. In 2015, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency granted contracts to Draper and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers to develop mini drones capable of imitating the ability of birds or insects to fly at high speeds near obstacles by having them navigate cluttered environments, such as inside damaged buildings.

Hassanalian first started studying bio-drones in 2011 while working on his master’s degree in Iran. He now has access to 3D printers and other advanced research tools and works with dead butterflies, attaching tiny piezoelectric actuators to flap their wings. Other bio-inspired projects include a spider-like robot for planetary exploration, a grasshopper-mimicking bot for exploring the moon, and robots that look and behave somewhat like jellyfish, dandelion seeds and roly-polies, also known as pill bugs.