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As it turns out, looking for more advanced technology may not be the key to making better drones after all. Rather, researchers at Stanford University are looking to biology – specifically, the flight patterns and behavior of birds. Time and time again, wind has proven detrimental to drones. All it takes is a swift gust of wind to knock a drone completely off its course, or even ground it. Birds, on the other hand, thrive in the wind, adjusting their flight pattern to glide to more majestic heights when things get a little blustery.

With all this in mind, Stanford has created a one-of-a-kind wind tunnel in order to study how birds fly in order to adapt their findings into making better flying drones. This sophisticated wind tunnel almost acts like a treadmill for birds, blowing air at speeds up to 35 MPH and generating turbulence through the use of a computer. “We can study how birds fly up close so that we can learn the magic of flight and translate that into better flying robots,” David Lentink, assistant Stanford engineering professor, said.

Windows looking into the 6-foot-long wind tunnel allow cameras to record the wing motion of birds so researchers can examine how a change in the dynamics of air flow impact a bird’s wing flutter. Birds have receptors on their skin cells in the follicles of their feathers that enable them to sense turbulence. When birds sense these changes, the shape of their wings unconsciously and dramatically change in order for them to continue flying gracefully or dodge obstacles they may encounter. Employing a fleet of hummingbirds, parrotlets and a lovebird, researchers hope that the information they gather from these birds can be applied to drones, testing out new, better flying models in the tunnel. Birds of a feather could make drones better.

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