Teaching drones to soar like birds

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Abdulghan Mohamed / Figshare

Flying robots are taking to the skies in greater numbers—performing tasks such as tracking critically endangered Māui dolphins and collecting data on extreme weather events. But they can’t fly well in windy conditions, and don’t have the battery capacity to power long flights.

Birds, on the other hand, can wheel and soar in even the most turbulent conditions, exploiting wind energy to fly effortlessly. In a new paper, birds provide inspiration to make drones more adaptable and energy efficient. Researchers suggest mimicking flying strategies such as vultures circling in thermal updrafts (below, D, E), or birds exploiting updrafts created by the likes of cliffs or buildings (F). “Dynamic soaring” strategies seen in gulls, kites and crows could inspire drones programmed to be more reactive to subtler air patterns. These include surfing wind gusts (above, A), sweeping close to the sea surface on the updraft of a long wave (B), or looping in the eddies off the tip of a sharp ridge (C).

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