Four engineers at the University of Pennsylvania have equipped a drone with a…claw. In a video posted to YouTube in February, they show a drone swooping down and grasping things at high speed, like a predatory eagle. It's a terrifying spectacle, if you imagine this thing swooping down on, say, a human.
The engineers were inspired to make the drone by footage of a bald eagle grasping its prey, they write in a paper for an upcoming design conference. When eagles grab fish, they sweep their legs backward, which lets them swoop down, grab prey, and keep moving without having to stop and hover. The drone mimics an eagle's motions and has an appendage that copies the animal's gripping style.
Other drones lower a gripper directly down on an object, grasping their payload like a claw crane grips an arcade prize, the engineers write. Anyone who's played an arcade game with a claw crane knows how hard it can be to maintain a vertical grip -- and for drones, it's not only difficult, but expensive. All that stopping and hovering while trying to grasp something wastes fuel.
While the drone's "eagle claw" is certainly new, designing machines inspired by nature is not a new practice. It's called "biomimicry," and while the word entered the lexicon in 1982, the practice was around much before that. Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral famously invented Velcro after observing the grasping properties of stinging nettles.