An engineering team at Stanford University, lead by engineering professor David Lentink, built a one-of-a-kind wind tunnel in order to observe, measure, and record the minute details of how birds fly. Their goal: To make aerial robots as stable as the team’s lovebirds, parrotlets, and hummingbirds… and your everyday pigeon.

With the recent boom in drone use, it’s easy to forget that the robots frequently fail in windy conditions. Consider flying a drone down an “urban canyon” like Fifth Avenue in New York City. Turbulence varies wildly from the middle of the “canyon” to alongside the skyscrapers, and obstacles like traffic lights pop up frequently. Now, throw in a few dozen drones fighting for position like the taxis below. It’s a nightmare for drone operators.

“But you look up, and you’ll see a pigeon swoop by casually. It has no problem stabilizing itself, flying around corners, dodging cables and landing on a perch,” Lentink said. “It’s just something we haven’t accomplished in robotics yet. 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.”

File under: Biomimicry and robots.

Next: The physics of why birds fly in V-formation and What Happens When You Put a Hummingbird in a Wind Tunnel?

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