Issue 29

Bionic Bird

Laurence Blestel
Relations presse @ XTIM

Better than a propeller driven drone, the Bionic Bird: the first lifelike bird, controllable by hand movement, is the object of a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. Edwin Van Ruymbeke, chief executive of XTIM, aeronautical engineer and inventor of the Bionic Bird, is presenting an ornithopter that can fly with bird like agility. XTIM has been working on this extraordinary smartphone controlled bird for 3 years.

The different stages of this crowdfunding campaign

Launched on the 21st of October, the French company XTIM chose this international crowdfunding platform which is especially focused on technological innovations, to confront their bird to the approval of the public.

The first step in our crowdfunding campaign ($ 25 000, have already been collected) is to create a number of limited edition birds in view of being a 'collector's item'. The 1000 early birds are offered at the price of $100, significantly cheaper than the future proposed retail price. They will be shipped for the holidays.

The second step ($ 50,000 also reached), will enable the development of the Bionic Bird App, « the FlyingApp », on Android OS. Added to the originally scheduled IOS application, it has broadened its list of compatible smartphones to cover the vast majority of the existing devices on the market.

It will take about 2 months for the development of the app, the adaptation of the UI to the numerous Android models and finally the delivery on Google Play. This holds the promise of availability of the app for users by the end of December. Today, we are moving on to the 3rd stage, a real technology gap to fill! Its goal will be reached as soon as the $200,000 funding is achieved: controlling the tail remotely. Through the use of bio-metal (shape memory alloy) the actuators will be able to control the tail angle remotely, which will open the way to new flight capabilities: aerial stunts like looping, super slow flights, inch-perfect trajectories. This new step is essential on the way to the final project of a full features drone Bionic Bird.

The fourth step ($ 400,000) is to control the Bionic Bird hovering. It will be stable enough in this flight configuration to shoot sharp movies, which leads to the final stage ($ 800,000): the insertion of a micro camera inside the body of Bionic Bird.

While observing real birds, Edwin Van Ruymbeke has devised and patented a steering system using the wing distortion, allowing quick and immediate changes of direction. The adjustment of the tail incidence allows the bird to fly inside as well as outside. In the open air, its range is 100 yards, its speed 12mph. The Bionic Bird weighs only 9.3 grams, for a length of 6.7 inches and a wing span of 13 inches. It has 2 processors, 2 motors and a battery, as well as a patented mechanism similar to clockwork. Bionic Bird charges on its egg by a magnetic contact in less than 12 minutes.Using the egg as a nomad charger, Bionic Bird can manage 10 flights of up to 8 minutes.

And what is more, the magic of mimicry, the flight of Bionic Bird is so real that the other birds think it is one of them. "Over many years, I have worked for the firm of my grandfather and my father, inventors of TIM, the well-known elastic propelled wing flapping bird. As part of my aeronautics engineering course I have studied a bird's flight and dreamt of finding a way to replace the elastic propelling the bird by an electrical motor and a battery, so that it could be radio-controlled.

It has become possible only with the arrival of newer mobile phones, which are lightweight and compact, as well as the development of micro-batteries (LiPo) and micro-motors (coreless).It was not possible beforehand to have an electric bird light enough to fly at slow speed with a such low wing span After years of research, the Bionic Bird has arrived! The first prototype flew beautifully, better than I had hoped...New doors have been opened."

Edwin Van Ruymbeke, an engineer from a family of inventors.

In order for us to find out more details, I asked Edwin Van Ruymbeke a few questions:

What is the biggest change between your Bionic Bird and the mechanical birds your dad und granddad built?

Actually, the biggest change in term of functionality, is that it is able to fly a much longer time (8 minutes vs 8 seconds), to be remotely controlled (by a smartphone), and to have an adjustable flying speed that allows to fly also indoors. Technically, the challenge was to replace a simple rubber band of 3 grams, by 2 motors, a battery, 2 gearboxes and a printed circuit board with 2 CPU for an even lower weight to wingspan ratio. Our Bionic Bird weighs 9 grams for 33 cm of wingspan. The original TIM weighted 16 grams for a 40 cm wingspan. This is achieved by a design without any concession to fight against weight, with ultra-miniaturized mechanics, the choice of the most advanced materials and components that can be found today. And a set of innovative solutions that have been patented.   What's the name of your grandfather or father who invented the first mechanical bird? Can you tell me a little bit more about their business? Did they sell them, was this your family business?

My grandfather Gaston, and father Gérard Van Ruymbeke invented the first mechanical bird that could fly by flapping the wings and it was sold as an industrial product. They created a toy company together and have been manufacturing this bird since 1969 until now. It was a great success worldwide in the 70's, and it is still sold nowadays. I have been working with them for 20 years. Now I created my own project and company, but my brother is still selling the original mechanical bird through the family company De Ruymbeke SARL.

  Is it proven that they were the first to invent a mechanical flying bird?

Yes, it is proven and well known in the toy industry as a famous product, unique on the market. My father owns the patent. All other similar products you can find are copies that have never been allowed to be sold in western countries or Japan thanks to the patent protection. You can find them only in Asian countries.   What was the biggest technical challenge you had to overcome to build the Bionic Bird?

As explained above, the challenge N°1 is to reduce the weight and size to its very minimum. The second is to improve drastically the efficiency of the wing flapping system. Compared to a propeller system, we have the disadvantage of being an alternative movement, which theoretically wastes a lot of energy only by inertia. You have to accelerate / stop / accelerate the wings in each cycle. A propeller just rotates and can forward all its power to the air. After months of study, our wings reached an efficiency close to those of propellers. With an identical motor, the vertical thrust of our bird is the same as a toy helicopter you can find on the market.    In the video it looks like you control the bird by weaving your smartphone around ­ what is the technic behind this? How is the bird exactly controlled by the app or gestures?

We use the sensor included in the smartphones. The G sensor, the magnet field sensor. An algorithm calculates the tilt angle of the phone, and converts it into an order to the bird steering system. When you tilt the phone on the left (and proportionally to the angle) the bird will turn left (resp. right). The sensitivity can be adjusted through the app settings to adapt to anybody's "feeling". These very natural gestures to control the bird flying direction makes the user to feel he directly interacts with the bird, and after some training, "forget" the controlling device. It becomes much more intuitive than a standard transmitter.

Is there a specific bird the Bionic Bird is modeled after or its flight behaviour is modeled after?

The shape of the body and the proportion between body length and wingspan is inspired from a raptor. It looks like a "micro" eagle. Concerning its flying behaviour, its flapping speed is higher, and it will be closer to a pigeon. But with its very good gliding performance, it comes back closer to a bird of prey. The result is a mix. But the ones that love it most when flying in the sky, and come to play with it, are the swallows!  

What is your background? How did you learn the skills to develop the Bionic Bird?

I am an aeronautical engineer. That's what I learned in my studies, and I graduated from a French engineer school. But also during the years I improved the mechanical bird, I went much further in my studies than necessary for that toy. I created various prototypes, made calculations, programs to study the wing flapping principle. I also think that being an inventor is a state of mind. You have it all your life long, and bring piece by piece all the ideas or thoughts that will result finally in something totally new.                                               

Why a bird? Everyone is working on drones these days, why did you decide to build a bird instead?

When I decided to make a bird was a longtime ago. It's a project of a life. It started in my mind while I was doing the mechanical bird. At that time the technology of motors and batteries wasn't light enough to achieve it. But I was waiting the time it will become possible, and that time finally came with the Lipo batteries and coreless motors. I've never been a trend follower. And I'm quite proud not to be the number one thousand to make a multi-rotor drone, and have developed something unique.


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