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Engineers Study the Agility of Birds to Improve Robot Flight

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Birds are generally pretty good at flying. They turn corners, land on perches. They zip between branches in a forest. They don’t get blown over and fall down when there’s a sudden gust of wind.

Flying robots, such as small drones or emergency monitors, could use some improvement.

“You see birds fly through trees, but you don’t see robots fly through trees because actually it’s quite complicated,” says Stanford mechanical engineer David Lentink. “Basically animals are much better at negotiating complex visuals and airflows than robots are.”

So Lentink, who has training in both aerospace engineering and zoology, is studying flying birds in super-slow motion, to figure out how to improve flying robots.

He says he and his engineering students look at wild birds for inspiration, then come back into the lab and train birds there to perform similar feats, which they film with high speed cameras.

Get Involved

Lentink is looking for volunteers. You can apply to borrow his high speed camera and film birds in the field.

“You really learn about the exquisite maneuvers the birds are capable of making,” says Lentink. He and his students have observed phenomena no one’s ever seen before, because they happen so fast. For instance, a hummingbird doing what he refers to as “a wet dog shake.”

“It was doing it so fast, it was doing it faster than any other vertebrate on the planet,” says Lentink. “Twice as fast as a mouse, which was the fastest that had been documented so far.”

Passenger jets and big drones do OK — they can fly through turbulence, or steer around it. But smaller drones don’t fare as well with complex flight situations like gusting winds or sudden turns.

“Birds are somehow capable of dealing with that and none of our robots can.” And, he says, no one quite knows how birds do it. “Straight flight has been studied very much. How birds turn has been studied much less. There’s just a lot we don’t know about how birds fly through complicated terrain.”

Lentink says by learning from birds, engineers might be able to design better flying robots that could be used in search and rescue or for monitoring crops.

And he’s looking for help.

“There’s so many birds and so many possible species we could film,” he says, and the engineers he’s working with don’t necessarily know the most interesting ones, or where to film them. So if you have ideas, you can apply to borrow their very high speed camera and capture video for the project. (My votes? I’d like to see super-slow motion barn swallows and a Cooper’s hawk crashing through a forest.)

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Category: Biology, Engineering, News

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About the Author ()

Molly Samuel joined KQED as an intern in 2007, and since then has worked here as a reporter, producer, director and blogger. Before becoming KQED Science’s Multimedia Producer, she was a producer for Climate Watch. Molly has also reported for NPR, KALW and High Country News, and has produced audio stories for The Encyclopedia of Life and the Oakland Museum of California. She was a fellow with the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism and a journalist-in-residence at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Molly has a degree in Ancient Greek from Oberlin College and is a co-founder of the record label True Panther Sounds.