Monica Daley, University of California Irvine – BirdBot

Flying might not be the only thing birds can teach us.

Monica Daley, associate professor of ecology & evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine, discusses another.

Monica earned her undergraduate degree in Biology at University of Utah. She was inspired to become a physiologist through her research on human running and breathing with Dennis Bramble and David Carrier. She then spent a year working as a research technician with Franz Goller, investigating motor control of singing in zebra finches. These experiences initiated a long-standing fascination with the complex interplay of mechanics and neural control. Monica earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, investigating muscle-tendon dynamics and biomechanics of bipedal locomotion. Her PhD research was supported by a Predoctoral Fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and supervised by Andrew Biewener. After her PhD, Monica trained in neuromechanics as an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow with Dan Ferris at the University of Michigan. Daley was faculty in the Structure and Motion Lab at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) from 2008-2019 and joined the UCI Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in Summer 2019.



The robotics industry has been rapidly advancing, but it remains a challenge to create energy-efficient legged robots. Recent robots are more agile and human-like, but still have difficulty navigating complex terrain.

My team studies birds to help solve this problem. Birds are fascinating athletes that fly, land, and run over many terrains. The legs of ground birds have anatomical features that allow passive adjustment to terrain when walking and running. The tendons adjust leg stiffness automatically when the foot hits the ground.

To develop a model for the structure and function of birds’ legs, we studied how ground birds walked and ran over uneven terrain. My PhD student raised ostriches from hatchlings so that we could safely study them in the lab!

We learned how birds’ leg structure allows efficient movement with rapid adjustment to uneven terrain. The tendons originate at the femur and cross all joints from the knee to the toes. When the bird’s foot lands, the impact energy is stored in the tendons and then returned to move the animal forward.  Little energy is required to keep moving.

Based on our model of the bird leg, we designed and built an efficient bipedal robot. Instead of sophisticated computers to control each joint, we used cables and pulleys to mimic the bird’s tendons. The design makes the control of stepping as simple as possible and requires no sensory feedback. 

Our robot demonstrates a light-weight bird-inspired design that can navigate complex terrains with minimal energy.  Thanks to our biomechanics research, robotics experts are realizing that bird legs might be the key to future legged robots.

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