Pigeonbot flies on wings that change shape.

Science News introduces us to a robot that flies on wings that can change shape just like a real bird’s:

Now, using new insights into exactly how pigeons’ joints control the spread of their wing feathers, researchers have built a robotic pigeon, dubbed PigeonBot, whose feathered wings change shape like the real deal.

Researchers bent and extended the wings of dead pigeons to investigate how the birds control their wing shape. Those experiments revealed that the angles of two wing joints, the wrist and the finger, most affect the alignment of a wing’s flight feathers. The orientations of those long, stiff feathers, which support the bird in flight, help determine the wing’s shape. Based on those findings, the team built a robot with real pigeon feathers, whose faux wrists and fingers can morph its wing shape as seen in the pigeon cadavers.

Besides laying the groundwork for building more graceful drones, “what’s really cool about this robot is … you can make manipulations in a robot wing that you could never do or want to do in a bird” to study flight, says David Lentink, an engineer and biologist at Stanford University.

For instance, Lentink wondered whether a pigeon could steer itself just by bending the finger joint of either its left or right wing. “The problem is, of course, I don’t really know how to train a bird to just move its finger — and I actually am very good in bird training,” he says by phone, as two pet birds chirp in the background.

A controllable robotic pigeon solves that problem.

There’s a video here.