Stanford Built a Turbulent Wind Tunnel for Birds to Help Drones Fly Better

By Andrew Liszewski on at

In terms of airborne manoeuvrability, Mother Nature’s flying creations still put our aircraft to shame. So when it comes to teaching drones and other autonomous aircraft how to stay aloft in the worst of conditions, it only makes sense to copy how birds do it.

Randomly pointing a high-speed camera at the sky and hoping to catch a bird in flight, however, is not exactly an ideal approach to studying how they manage to be so manoeuvrable. Researchers at Stanford University agree and have instead built a new wind tunnel that can accommodate birds so they can be studied and filmed in a controlled environment.

That’s not a new idea, birds have been flown and filmed in wind tunnels before. What’s unique about Stanford’s creation is a new system that allows precisely-controlled turbulence to be introduced, giving birds an opportunity to show off what they’re really capable of when flying out in the wild.

By studying how birds deal with turbulence and changing wind conditions, the researchers hope to gain insights into improving how drones and other autonomous aircraft handle the same thing—instead of immediately losing control and plummeting out of the sky. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say. But in this case, birds have just had far more time to perfect their flying skills and techniques than humans have.