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There’s a lot drone engineers can learn from birds. Masters of the skies, these creatures make flittering about in the windiest conditions seem easy.

“It’s just something we haven’t accomplished in robotics yet,” said Prof. David Lentink, who teaches mechanical engineering at Stanford University, in a statement. “We need to study birds up close so we can figure out what their secret is to flying so stably under such difficult conditions, and apply that to aerial robotic design.”

Recently, Lentink and colleagues opened a wind tunnel meant to study birds in flight. At almost two meters (m) long, it’s capable of producing wind speeds on the order of 50 m/sec. It’s also outfitted with a turbulence generating system, allowing the researchers to test a bird’s flight in a variety of turbulent conditions.

In the lab, the researchers are utilizing lovebirds, parrotlets, and hummingbirds, which usually travel around 7 m/sec. For now, they’ll only pump up the wind speed to around 15 m/sec for these birds.

High-speed cameras and motion capture techniques help the researchers record the birds’ wingbeats down to the millisecond. Calculations based off the captured movements help the researchers understand the force dynamics at work.

“We’re super excited to figure out what enables birds to fly under these complex conditions, and how can we translate what we find into developing robots that can be used for delivery, search and rescue, any application in an urban environment where conditions like wind are really unpredictable,” said Lentink in a video from Stanford.

According to Stanford, two fluoroscopes may be added to the wind tunnel this summer. The devices will allow researchers to better visualize the muscular-skeletal movements.

Additionally, the researchers hope to test flocks of birds in the tunnel to understand how their wing movements affect one another.

Studying all this could potentially lead to the development of winged robots that maneuver like birds.

“Ever since Otto Lilienthal and the Wright Brothers studied birds to invent their airplanes, engineers have relied on talking with biologists to learn the tricks birds use,” Lentink said in a statement.     

 

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