Questions for ‘Meet robots on a mission to help birds’

Three zebra finches sit on a perch, but the finch in the middle is a convincing robot, not a real bird.

RoboFinch, a robotic singing tutor for birds, sits on a perch between two real zebra finches, a male (left) and a female (right). RoboFinch’s designers used coils from toy birds to make the beak chatter and head swivel.

Ralph Simon

To accompany “Meet robots on a mission to help birds


Before Reading:

  1. “Biomimicry” refers to something human-made that is inspired by nature. What is one ability or characteristic found in a living thing that you would like to have? How might you design a material or object to have this characteristic?
  2. What are some challenges that researchers might face in making robots that look, sound or act like birds?

During Reading:

  1. Why did Ralph Simon and his colleagues build RoboFinch?  
  2. How did zebra finches react differently to RoboFinches that sang in sync with birdsongs versus RoboFinches that were out of sync?
  3. How might singing robo-birds someday be used to help orphaned or wild birds?
  4. How did RobotFalcon’s designers evaluate how effective it was?
  5. Why does Paolo Segre think RobotFalcon worked better than a regular drone at shooing birds from airports?
  6. List three ways researchers are already using drones to study wild animals.
  7. Why is it challenging for drones to study animals beneath dense forest canopies?    
  8. What are the benefits of enabling a drone to fly into a forest and perch there for a long time?
  9. Researchers designed a robot that could switch between flying and perching. What animals inspired this design? In what way does it mimic a bird?
  10. What are some of the potential downsides of using robots to try to help and study birds? What are some of the potential benefits?

After Reading:

  1. Think about a bird that lives in your neighborhood. What could you learn about that bird using a robot that mimics the bird’s look, sound or behavior?
  2. Animals use many different senses to monitor their environments — sight, smell, hearing, vibration and so on. Based on evidence from the story, which sense(s) do you think birds near airports used to detect RobotFalcon? Imagine a new species of bird moved into the area that has poor hearing and sight but an excellent sense of smell. Describe a robot you would design to shoo this bird away from airports. Explain your choices.­