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David Zax

A View from David Zax

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a Birdlike Plane!

Researchers attach cameras to birds’ heads to learn about how they fly.

  • July 11, 2011

Ever since we humans first gazed at the sky and saw birds majestically flitting across it, we’ve wanted to fly ourselves. Curiously, though, the solution we settled on–the familiar tube-like structures called airplanes, whose static, non-flapping wings are curved to achieve lift–only bear a passing resemblance to birds.

While it was a willingness to break with avian tradition that finally brought us aviation, for the next generation of planes, we may in fact want to draw our inspiration more directly from birds.

By now, we humans are pretty good at flying, to be sure. But birds, who’ve been at it much longer, still do it better. That was the conclusion of scientists from Harvard who recently presented some novel research on pigeon navigation at the annual Society for Experimental Biology conference. The researchers wanted to know how birds effortlessly do something that our best fighter pilots often can’t–dart dexterously through a forest. To settle the question, they attached tiny head-cameras on pigeons and trained them to fly through an artificial forest; they also filmed the birds from the side as they flew. In this way, they were able to “reconstruct both what the bird sees and how it moves,” Huai-Ti Lin, one of the researchers said. (Before turning his attention to the air, Lin worked on caterpillar-inspired “soft robots.”)

Lin’s team discovered a few things: that sudden, rapid movements of the head enabled the bird to spot tiny obstacles, and that curiously, even though the bird would make dozens or hundreds of small maneuvers as it traversed the forest, it managed to typically exit the forest at just the same angle as it entered. The researchers say that their findings could be of use for the next generation of unmanned or auto-piloted aircraft. Teach a robo-plane to be as smart and dexterous as a pigeon, and you could just program the coordinates of the destination without giving it any information about the obstacles it might encounter in the messy middle. “If we could develop the technology to follow the same methods as birds we could let the robot get on with it without giving it any more input,” said Lin in a release.

The Harvard pigeon study falls in the realm of fairly basic research, but other researchers lately have taken concrete steps to make bird-like aircraft. Researchers from the Biomimetics-Innovation-Centre in Germany, for instance, recently created a micro aircraft with flapping wings. (It’s inspired by a highly efficient and maneuverable bird called the swift.) And last year, MIT researchers presented a glider that could land like a bird on a wire, in the sudden, delicate, and precise touchdown known as a “stall.”

Reports on these bird-like aviation innovations stress that the research is most likely to show up in unmanned or military aircraft, so don’t expect to see your next Delta flight involving flapping wings, screeching halts, or a cockpit that twitches like a pigeon’s head. Still, if you live near an Air Force base or testing facility, you might someday have to do a double take to distinguish the nearby bird from the distant airplane.

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