What Drones Have to Learn from Ancient Animal Flight Patterns

In an interesting case of art (or in this case, robotics) imitating life, scientists have revealed the role of real-life animal flight adaptations in helping teams develop and hone drones. On December 15, journal Interface Focus published 18 studies about airborne drones and the animals used as inspiration in shaping their flight patterns. David Lentink, the issue’s editor, also a Stanford University mechanical engineering assistant professor, says the goal of the publications is “to inspire development of new aerial robots and to show the current status of animal flight studies.”

The new studies reveal that, despite mankind’s long and complex history of crafting flying machines, we still have much to learn from examining the elegant techniques and mechanisms that have enabled birds, bats, and insects to safely and successfully take flight, stay aloft, and land for millions of years. Through careful study of naturally-occurring adaptations and processes, humans have found solutions for a vast array of problems, a process known as biomimetics or biomimicry, which has spawned inventions both well-known (Velcro, inspired by plant burrs stuck on a dog’s fur) and obscure but still practical (Mirasol, a full-color e-reader display based on how light gleams off butterfly wings).


Though drones already seem to be fully functioning and ubiquitous, Lentink says that there is still much room to improve how easily and gracefully they fly, and that the 10,000 bird, 4000 bat, and 1 million bug species currently in existence can provide researchers with invaluable resources and insights into all sorts of flying techniques, from navigating turbulent skies to flying without a sound. Says Lentink: “Most people think that since we know how to design airplanes, we know all there is to know about flight,” but he argues that after successfully creating planes and rockets, we stopped studying flying animals as closely as we had, losing out on many potentially inspiring and innovative discoveries. However, he notes the current high demand for easily maneuverable and multi-talented flying robots, from corporations, individuals, and governments alike, has ignited a scientific “renaissance” and has opened new investigations into the many mysteries of animal aerodynamics.

One scientific research team focused on the owl’s ability to glide through the air in complete silence. The team explored wing adaptations that would potentially suppress noise, and concluded that owls’ large wing size, as well as the specific shape, texture, and feather-fringed edges of their wings, work together to muffle sound as owls swoop and soar through the sky. A second group studied how frigate birds, seabirds which fly for days without stopping, sleep “on the wing,”  capturing the birds’ in-flight brain activity for the first time ever and finding that they are able to take “micro naps” to rest both brain hemispheres concurrently. Other scientists discovered that fruit flies with broken wings can continue to fly by intuitively adjusting their wing and body motions to compensate for up to half a missing wing.

Several of the other newly-released studies detailed the techniques by which new robots can plunge into deep water from mid-air, stay aloft through strong winds, or bend their wings to better control their flight, all of which were designed with the help of research into animal flights patterns.

Lentink concludes that drones still have a way to go, but that biomimicry will continue to play an important role in shaping their design and skill. “They need to become more silent,” he notes. “They need to be more efficient, and they need to fly longer. There’s a lot of engineering that still needs to happen. The fact that the first steps are being made right now is really exciting and shows that there is a great future in this.”

Post by Shannon Cuthbert

Sources: Lewis, Tanya. “Biomimicry: 7 Clever Technologies Inspired by Nature.” Live Science. 22 APril 2013.

Weisberger, Mindy. “New Flying Robots Take Cues From Airborne Animals.” Live Science. 16 December 2016.

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