Taking to the skies over Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park, a gossamer-winged mechanical bird (which we wrote about when it debuted, here) is mobbed by flocks of its living brethren. It’s the remarkable and successful demonstration of SmartBird, the latest (and most incredible) biomimetic robot from the German engineering firm Festo.
Earlier that recent day, Festo’s Markus Fischer had wowed the audience at the luxe futurists’ gathering TED Global with a demonstration of SmartBird’s ingenious inner workings. But it’s in the open air that the true wonder of the robotic bird becomes clear–and not only to humans, but to the herring gulls that inspired SmartBird’s design. Whether they’re acting out of threat or kinship, it’s clear that, as SmartBird dips and bobs on currents of air while conference-goers watch far below, the gulls see the device as part of their world.
The dream of an artifical bird has been a fixture of the human imagination since long before Leonardo da Vinci sketched his designs for mechanical wings in the 15th century. We long approached the prospect of mechanical flight with ambivalence, however, recognizing in it a strain of reckless hubris able to bring down the likes of Dedalus. In his short story “The Artist of the Beautiful,” Nathaniel Hawthorne imagines a craftsman who discovers the tragic faults of pride and desire when he creates a tiny, lapidary butterfly.
In Festo’s unique robots (which include flying penguins and jellyfish, quick-swimming fish and intelligent kites) we catch a glimpse of a rebooted impulse to mimic nature–one more humble, more sensitive and alert than the Promethean urges of old. SmartBird doesn’t want to beat its avian ancestors; it wants to join them. And that’s the kind of engineering we’re going to need if our technologically enamored species is to survive. Design needs to mimic nature at a very deep level, working in concert with it rather than opposing it at every quarter. To be fair, SmartBird is no solution to the profound challenges we’ve posed to the Earth and ourselves in the technological age. But perhaps it is an avatar of a solution, an early and evocative expression of the spirit in which such will be found.