In a lot of ways, it seems like we’re in the “plateau of productivity” part of the hype cycle when it comes to drones. UAVs have pretty much been reduced to practice and have become mostly an off-the-shelf purchase these days, with a dwindling number of experimenters pushing the envelope with custom builds, like building drones out of dead birds.
These ornithopomorphic UAVs come to us from the New Mexico Insitute of Mining and Technology, where [Mostafa Hassanalian] runs the Autonomous Flight and Aquatic Systems lab. While looking into biomimetics, [Dr. Hassanalian] hit upon the idea of using taxidermy birds as an airframe for drones. He and his team essentially reverse-engineered the birds to figure out how much payload they’d be able to handle, and added back the necessary components to make them fly again.
From the brief video in the tweet embedded below, it’s clear that they’ve come up with a huge variety of feathered drones. Some are clearly intended for testing the aerodynamics of taxidermy wings in makeshift wind tunnels, while others are designed to actually fly. Propulsion seems to run the gamut from bird-shaped RC airplanes with a propeller mounted in the beak to true ornithopters. Some of the drones clearly have a conventional fuselage with feathers added, which makes sense for testing various subsystems, like wings and tails.
It’s easy to mock something like this, and the jokes practically write themselves. But when you think about it, the argument for a flying bird-shaped robot is pretty easy to make from an animal behavior standpoint. If you want to study how birds up close while they’re flying, what better way than to send in a robot that looks similar to the other members of the flock? And besides, evolution figured out avian flight about 150 million years ago, so studying how birds do it is probably going to teach us something.
Hedges aren’t just a pretty garden decoration. They’re also a major habitat for many species of insects, birds, and other wildlife. In some areas, a lot of hedge trimming goes during the time that local birds are raising their fledglings, which causes harm at a crucial time. Thus, [Johann Elias Stoetzer] and fellow students were inspired to create Hedge Watcher.
The concept is simple – using thermal vision to spot birds inside a hedge when they may not otherwise be easily visible. Many species blend in with their surroundings in a visual manner, so thermal imaging is a great way to get around this. It can help to avoid destroying nests or otherwise harming birds when trimming back hedges. The idea was sourced from large-scale agricultural operations, which regularly use thermal cameras mounted on drones to look for wildlife before harvesting a field.
However, staring at a thermal camera readout every few seconds while trimming hedges isn’t exactly practical. Instead, the students created an augmented reality (AR) monocular to allow the user to trim hedges at the same time as keeping an eye on the thermal camera feed. Further work involved testing a binocular AR headset, as well as a VR headset. The AR setups proved most useful as they allowed for better situational awareness while working.
It’s a creative solution to protecting the local birdlife, and is to be applauded. There’s plenty of hubris around potential uses for augmented reality, but this is a great example of a real and practical one. And, if you’re keen to experiment with AR yourself, note that it doesn’t have to break the bank either!
Recently, we’ve stumbled upon the extensive effort that is the BirdNET research platform. BirdNET uses a neural network to identify birds by the sounds they make, and is a joint project between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Chemnitz University of Technology. What strikes us is – this project is impressively featureful and accessible for a variety of applications. No doubt, BirdNET is aiming to become a one-stop shop for identifying birds as they sing.
There’s plenty of ways BirdNET can help you. Starting with likely the most popular option among us, there are iOS and Android apps – giving the microphone-enabled “smart” devices in our pockets a feature even the most app-averse hackers can respect. However, the BirdNET team also talks about bringing sound recognition to our browsers, Raspberry Pi and other SBCs, and even microcontrollers. We can’t wait for someone to bring BirdNET to a RP2040! The code’s open-source, the models are freely available – there’s hardly a use case one couldn’t cover with these.
About that Raspberry Pi version! There’s a sister project called BirdNET-Pi – it’s an easy-to-install software package intended for the Raspberry Pi OS. Having equipped your Pi with a USB sound card, you can make it do 24/7 recording and analysis using a “lite” version of BirdNET. Then, you get a web interface you can log into and see bird sounds identified in real-time. Not just that – BirdNET-Pi also processes the sounds and creates spectrograms, keeps the sound in a database, and can even send you notifications.
The BirdNET-Pi project is open, too, of course. Not just that – the BirdNET-Pi team emphasizes everything being fully local, unless you choose otherwise, and perhaps decide to share it with others. Many do make their BirdNET-Pi instances public, and there’s a lovely interactive map that shows bird sounds all across the world!
BirdNET is, undoubtedly, a high-effort project – and a shining example of what a dedicated research team can do with a neural network and an admirable goal in mind. For many of us who feel joy when we hear birds outside, it’s endearing to know that we can plug a USB sound card into our Pi and learn more about them – even if we can’t spot them or recognize them by sight just yet. We’ve covered bird sound recognition on microcontrollers before – also using machine learning.
Scientists who work with animals love to track their movements. This can provide interesting insights on everything from mating behaviour, food sources, and even the way animals behave socially – or anti-socially, as the case may be.
This is normally achieved with the use of tracking devices, affixed to an animal so that it can be observed remotely while going about its normal business. However, Australian scientists have recently run into some issues in this area, as the very animals they try to track have been removing these very devices, revealing some thought-provoking behaviour in the process.
Jerry Seinfeld launched his career with Bee Movie, an insect-themed animated feature that took the world by storm in 2007. It posed the quandary – that supposedly, according to all known laws of aviation, bees should not be able to fly. Despite this, the bee flies anyway, because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.
The quote isn’t easily attributed to anyone in particular, but is a cautionary tale about making the wrong assumptions in an engineering context. Yes, if you model a bee using the same maths as an airliner, of course you’ll find that it shouldn’t be able to fly. Its tiny wings can’t possibly generate enough lift to get its body off the ground. But that’s because the assumption is an erroneous one – because bees don’t fly in the same way planes do. Bees flap their wings. But that’s just the beginning. The truth is altogether more complex and interesting! Continue reading “Flapping Wings And The Science Of How Bees Can Fly”→
Despite epithets like “bird-brain,” our feathered friends are actually pretty smart. Being able to maneuver in three dimensions at high speed must have something to do with it, and the cognitive abilities of birds are well-documented and still being researched. So it naturally makes sense to harness avian brainpower to keep one’s yard clean, right?
For the record, the magpies that [Hans] is training are very intelligent and strikingly beautiful birds who delight in swooping down to harass people, and who will gladly steal food from other birds and then poop on it and fly away. So they’re jerks, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful jerks. The goal with his BirdBox system is to use classic operant conditioning, where a desired voluntary behavior is reinforced by a reward. In this case, the reward is a treat dispensed by a 3D-printed vibratory dispenser when the bird collects a bottlecap from the yard and deposits it in the proper slot. The video below shows the birds doing exactly what they’re supposed to do.
[Hans] tells us that the trick is getting the birds to accept the BirdBox and to have them integrate it into their “patrol schematic” of their territory. Once that’s done, it’s a simpler matter to have them associate the bottlecaps with the reward. The other challenge is making everything bulletproof, or in this case magpie-proof. Did we mention that magpies are jerks?
The possibilities for trading peanuts for yardwork are endless; [Hans] mentions plans he has for fallen fruit clean-up, and mentions a persistent garden slug problem that the birds might be employed to remediate. If you want to try this, it might be a good idea to brush up on the work of [B.F. Skinner] and his pigeons of war.
The future of the musical instrument industry is in tiny, cheap, handheld synthesizers. They’re sold as ‘musical toys’. They bleep and bloop, and that’s about it. Korg may have just released the minimum viable product for this category, and thus the most popular product for this category. On the surface, the Korg Nu:Tekt doesn’t look like much, just a box with three knobs, a speaker, a (crappy) keyboard, and a few buttons. I/O includes MIDI in, Sync in and out, audio in, and headphones out. What’s inside is what counts. There’s a high-powered ARM core (STM32F446, a Cortex-M4 running at 180 MHz) and a ton of RAM. What’s the play here? It’s compatible with the Korg Prologue/Minilogue SDK, so you can put the same sounds from the flagship synthesizer on a tiny box that fits in your pocket. Things are starting to get weird, man. This is a toy, with the same sounds as the ‘pro’ level synth. Let it be known that the synth market is the most interesting segment of consumer electronics right now.
Razer, the company that makes garish computer peripherals aimed at ‘gamers’ and other people who are sucked deep into the existential turmoil of disempowerment, depression, and playing video games all day, are building a toaster. Gamers aren’t known for eating food that isn’t prepared by their mom, but the Razer consumer community has been clamoring for a professional gaming toaster since it was first teased on April Fool’s Day three years ago. You only eat so many cold Pop Tarts straight out of the box, I guess.