Engineers and birds have an odd relationship. There is a recent fascination with what birds could teach us about building new aircraft or drones for that matter. Stanford University has joined the craze and has built a wind tunnel for birds and drones to test aerodynamics and how birds react to turbulence.
Dan Quinn, a postdoctoral research fellow says, "Birds are masters of maneuverability in ways that we are only beginning to understand."
"Birds can dramatically change the shape of their wings almost instantly and respond in that way very quickly. Flying in turbulence, avoiding obstacles and also flying very effectively over long distances," says David Lentink, mechanical engineering professor at Stanford.
The wind tunnel that the team of researchers built can alter turbulence and will cause birds to avoid and dodge the winds in the tunnel. This would allow the researchers to understand how they do this and perhaps publish the findings which could lead to drones dodging turbulence in expert ways in the future, inspired by nature.
The wind tunnel will push out gusts of winds up to 15 metres per second at maximum. Then a host of windows around the tunnel allow the researchers to peek inside the wind tunnel but they have also set up high-speed cameras so that they can capture slow motion video. A fluoroscope is used to observe the skeletal movements that are occurring in birds during flight in the wind tunnel. The fluoroscope is basically an X-ray machine that will show the bird in real time.
"The tunnel is designed to be super low turbulence but we also want to study how birds fly in turbulence and how we design vehicles that are more stable in turbulence. We can actually not only control how strong the turbulence is but where the turbulence is inside the tunnel," said Quinn.
Similarly, UCLA and its engineers are also studying bird flight to eventually try and turn into aircraft design.
Daniel Inman, a professor of aerospace at the University of Michigan, is working with the team over at UCLA, who have been given a $6 million grant to observe bird flight and invent materials that are flexible enough to react to wind like bird wings do. He said: "With new materials, advanced sensing and control techniques, and inventive methods for observing birds in flight, our team will begin to bring avian efficiency and agility to aircraft."