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Insect-inspired flying robot smacks panes sans pain

Researchers at Switzerland's Laboratory of Intelligent Systems are working on a robot that can collide with windows and other obstacles, fall, then get up and fly again.

A rendering of a version of the AirBurr taking care of business.
A rendering of a version of the AirBurr taking care of business, along with some sidekicks. Laboratory of Intelligent Systems

When watching a fly smack into a window over and over -- buzzing and falling and climbing again -- most people probably wind up doing one of two things: reach for a flyswatter, or, if they're a bit more compassionate, open the window.

Members of a robotics team at the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne did a third thing: they got inspired.

"We were looking at insects and how they fly and how even though they manage to avoid most obstacles, they still manage to fly into windows and fly into walls, yet it's OK. They don't break..." team member Adam Klaptocz says in the video embedded below. "So we thought instead of making robots that just avoid obstacles, why don't we make a robot that can crash into things, get back up again, and keep flying?"

The result, as you'll see, is the AirBurr. The apparently resilient little machine may one day yield offspring that can be used to explore off-limits and/or tough-to-navigate environments such as failed nuclear plants, condemned buildings, collapsed mines, caves, and so on.

The gadget's innards are protected by a flexible carbon-fiber exoskeleton of sorts that can absorb shocks. It also has extendable legs it uses to right itself if it falls, so it can relaunch. The team says it hopes to develop the device to the point where it can bounce off obstacles or fly along a wall to find an opening.

No word yet on whether it will be able to outmaneuver flyswatters.