It’s been more than a century since the Wright brothers built the first airplane, based on their intensive observations of avian flight. But birds’ sophisticated wing physiology and flight behavior still influence aeronautics.
A new Airbus plane, slated to debut in 2014, is using technology derived from seabirds, whose beaks sense gusts of wind moments before those gusts hit their wings, and who then adjust their wing angle accordingly. The new plane uses electronic sensors on its nose to do the same thing, allowing for more energy-efficient flight. Future engineers may copy owls, which achieve nearly silent flight through a comblike pattern of feathers on their wings’ trailing edges.
Drone designers are also taking cues from birds. MIT researchers observed goshawks flying through a perilously dense forest, then wrote equations to set speed limits for obstacle-dodging drones. The firm Aerovironment has designed a tiny drone that imitates hummingbirds’ agile, hovering flight (and even looks like one of the birds). The Defense Department has ordered 10 to use for military spying. The drones are so realistic that actual hummingbirds appear to have mistaken them for their own species, zipping after them during outdoor trials.
This story originally ran as “Taking Flight” in the March-April 2013 issue of Audubon magazine.