Harnessing flight strategies refined by millions of years of evolution can help expedite the design of more efficient, manoeuvrable and robust flying robots. This review synthesizes recent advances and highlights remaining gaps in our understanding of how bird and bat wing adaptations enable effective flight. Included in this discussion is an evaluation of how current robotic analogues measure up to their biological sources of inspiration. Studies of vertebrate wings have revealed skeletal systems well suited for enduring the loads required during flight, but the mechanisms that drive coordinated motions between bones and connected integuments remain ill-described. Similarly, vertebrate flight muscles have adapted to sustain increased wing loading, but a lack of in vivo studies limits our understanding of specific muscular functions. Forelimb adaptations diverge at the integument level, but both bird feathers and bat membranes yield aerodynamic surfaces with a level of robustness unparalleled by engineered wings. These morphological adaptations enable a diverse range of kinematics tuned for different flight speeds and manoeuvres. By integrating vertebrate flight specializations-particularly those that enable greater robustness and adaptability-into the design and control of robotic wings, engineers can begin narrowing the wide margin that currently exists between flying robots and vertebrates. In turn, these robotic wings can help biologists create experiments that would be impossible in vivo.
Keywords: flight; forelimb specialization; wing design.
© 2017 The Author(s).