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New Stanford wind tunnel for birds will help build better drones

A stiff gust of wind can blow a drone completely off course — or even toss it to the ground.

But birds take air turbulence in stride.

So a new one-of-a-kind wind tunnel at Stanford University is studying bird flight to build better drones.

“We can study how birds fly up close so that we can learn the magic of flight and translate that into better flying robots,” said David Lentink, an assistant Stanford engineering professor who studies bird flight.

The wind tunnel, one of the most sophisticated in the world, is sort of a treadmill for birds.

With a fan the size of a small car, it blows air at speeds that range from 0 to 35 miles per hour.

It also can generate random turbulence, using computers.

The 6-foot-long tunnel has windows, allowing cameras to record wing motion. Lentink’s team of researchers then scrutinize — millisecond by millisecond — how the changing dynamics of air flow influence a bird’s wing flutter.

Lentick’s lab uses parrotlets, hummingbirds and a lovebird named Ferrari. Someday, he and fellow researchers hope to fly entire flocks in the tunnel. They want to understand how the turbulence created by each bird’s wings affects the adjacent birds, forcing them to shift position.

Birds sense turbulence through receptors on skin cells known as Herbst corpuscles, located near the drone in windfollicles of feathers on the leading edges of their wings.

Unconsciously, they can quickly and dramatically change the shape of their wings. This allows them to stabilize, dodge obstacles or gracefully land on a perch.

In contrast, drones — also called aerial robots — are lousy navigators in wind.

This is a particular problem in the “urban canyons” of cities, where skyscrapers create a wild range of turbulence.

Drones also can’t navigate around obstacles like traffic lights as well as birds.

“Birds are masters of maneuverability in ways that we are just beginning to understand,” said Stanford researcher Dan Quinn.

Full story: marinij.com

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