Skip to Content
Artificial intelligence

This weird-looking pigeon is actually a drone that flies with real feathers

January 16, 2020
The PigeonBot flies through the air
The PigeonBot flies through the airStanford University

Bird brains: Roboticists have been turning to birds for flight inspiration for years, but they haven’t yet successfully managed to get a drone to fly like one. David Lentink and colleagues at Stanford have come a step closer by creating the first flying robot with soft, feathered wings. It’s able to maneuver more easily and withstand stronger wind speeds than rigid drones, says Lentink. Details of the bird drone were described in two separate papers in Science Robotics and Science today.

Catch that pigeon: To understand how birds control their flight, the researchers studied the skeletons and feathers of common pigeons, which are particularly good at flying in turbulent conditions. They found that pigeons control flight through about 40 Velcro-like feathers, using four “wrist” and “finger” joints to steer their movements. The researchers re-created the same mechanics in a propeller-driven drone. The “body” of the drone is a foam board frame with an embedded GPS and remote-control receiver, while the maneuverable wings have real pigeon feathers attached. The feathered wings were far lighter and more robust than earlier prototypes made using carbon and glass fiber.

It looks a bit... erm rubbish: Well, yes, fair enough. The “PigeonBot” is only an early prototype, but it could pave the way for drones that maneuver as nimbly as birds. Giving drones bird-like wings could make them lighter and thus more efficient, meaning they’d be able to travel longer distances without having to refuel. It could also make them easier to control, especially in windy conditions.

Deep Dive

Artificial intelligence

The inside story of how ChatGPT was built from the people who made it

Exclusive conversations that take us behind the scenes of a cultural phenomenon.

AI is dreaming up drugs that no one has ever seen. Now we’ve got to see if they work.

AI automation throughout the drug development pipeline is opening up the possibility of faster, cheaper pharmaceuticals.

GPT-4 is bigger and better than ChatGPT—but OpenAI won’t say why

We got a first look at the much-anticipated big new language model from OpenAI. But this time how it works is even more deeply under wraps.

The original startup behind Stable Diffusion has launched a generative AI for video

Runway’s new model, called Gen-1, can change the visual style of existing videos and movies.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.