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PUBLIC RELEASE DATE:
17-Oct-2011

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Contact: Michael Bishop
michael.bishop@iop.org
01-179-301-032
Institute of Physics
@PhysicsNews

Tree-dwelling animals were the first to fly, new research suggests

A six-legged, 25 gram robot has been fitted with flapping wings in order to gain an insight into the evolution of early birds and insects.

Published today, 18 October, in IOP Publishing's journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, the study showed that although flapping wings significantly increased the speed of running robots, the origin of wings may lie in animals that dwelled in trees rather than on the ground.

The flapping wings increased the speed of the running robot by 90%, going from 0.68 m/s to 1.29 m/s, and also enabled it to climb steeper gradients, increasing from a 5.6° ascent to a 16.9° ascent, which would be important in the development of a hybrid running and flying robot that could have several civilian and military applications.

The researchers, from the University of California, Berkley and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, proposed that testing the wings on robots could provide an insight into how they evolved in early birds.

Fossils of animals closely related to dinosaurs, dating back further than when birds actually emerged, show that feathers were present on all four limbs, suggesting that the original function of wings was to help animals glide when dropping from a height, much like a paper aeroplane.

An alternative theory is that the first wings may have appeared in land-based animals, functioning as a mechanism to increase running speeds and then leading to take-offs and flying thereafter. The aim of this research was to gauge how much of an advantage flapping wings give a running animal.

"By using our robot we can directly determine the performance effects of flapping wings on a running platform as well as gaining a much greater mechanical insight into how the wings are actually working on the robot. We are thus able to look at the performance of the wings directly rather than attempting to build theoretical aerodynamic models based on fossil morphologies that may be overly sensitive to various assumptions", said Kevin Peterson, lead author of the study.

The researchers concluded that flapping wings do provide an advantage to running robots but not to the level that is needed to allow it to take off.

"We believe that this result lends indirect support to the theory that avian flight evolved from tree-dwelling animals, and not from land animals that required ground-based running take offs", continued Peterson.

The potential to use such a winged robot in a multitude of applications, from reconnaissance, exploration of hazardous areas and search and rescue, was also highlighted.

Peterson said: "On the current robot, the wings allow for a stable descent, meaning it can jump from high areas and stably land on its legs at the bottom. The wings also increase running stability as well as the range of inclines the robot can traverse, further increasing the likelihood of a successful mission."

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Contact

1. For further information, a full draft of the journal paper or contact with one of the researchers, contact IOP Publishing Press Assistant, Michael Bishop:
Tel: 0117-930-1032
E-mail: Michael.Bishop@iop.org

Bioinspiration & Biomimetics

2. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics publishes research which applies principles abstracted from natural systems to engineering and technological design and applications.

IOP Publishing

3. IOP Publishing provides publications through which leading-edge scientific research is distributed worldwide. IOP Publishing is central to the Institute of Physics (IOP), a not-for-profit society. Any financial surplus earned by IOP Publishing goes to support science through the activities of IOP. Beyond our traditional journals programme, we make high-value scientific information easily accessible through an ever-evolving portfolio of community websites, magazines, conference proceedings and a multitude of electronic services. Focused on making the most of new technologies, we're continually improving our electronic interfaces to make it easier for researchers to find exactly what they need, when they need it, in the format that suits them best. Go to http://www.ioppublishing.org/

The Institute of Physics

4. The Institute of Physics is a leading scientific society promoting physics and bringing physicists together for the benefit of all.

It has a worldwide membership of around 40 000 comprising physicists from all sectors, as well as those with an interest in physics. It works to advance physics research, application and education; and engages with policy makers and the public to develop awareness and understanding of physics. Its publishing company, IOP Publishing, is a world leader in professional scientific communications. Go to http://www.iop.org.



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