October 18, 2011
Robot Helps Researchers Understand Evolution Of Wings
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Scientists from University of California - Berkeley have built a six-legged robot to help gain a better understanding of the evolution of early birds and insects.
The new study showed that the origin of wings may lie in animals that dwelled in trees rather than on the ground.
The researchers said the flapping wings increased the speed of the running robot by 90 percent and also enabled it to climb steeper gradients, which would be important in the development of a hybrid running and flying robot.
The team proposed that testing the wings on robots could help provide insight into how they evolved in early birds.
Fossils of animals closely related to dinosaurs show that feathers were present on all four limbs, which suggests the original function of wings was to help animals glide when dropping from a height.
Another theory is that wings first appeared in land-based animals, functioning as a mechanism to increase running speeds and then leading to take-offs and flying.
The researchers used the robot to help gauge how much of an advantage flapping wings gives 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," Kevin Peterson, lead author of the study, said in a press release.
"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."
The team found that flapping wings could help give 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 team published their research in the October 18 issue of the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.
Image Caption: DASH+Wings showed the possibility of using robotic models to provide insight into biological performance. (Image by Kevin Peterson, Biomimetic Millisystems Lab)
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