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Pigeon-Powered Drones Taking Flight


Some call them flying rats. To others, they’re just a nuisance. But for scientists, the common pigeon may hold the key to the next generation of surveillance drones.

Scientists at Harvard University are studying the birds’ unique ability to make helicopter-like turns, which they think could be applied to mechanical drones for use inside the narrow hallways of buildings.

The birds’ extraordinary ability to maneuver in tight spaces helps it survive the rigors of city life. And scientists now believe these extraordinary abilities could be used in military applications.

Led by Ph.D. student, Ivo Ros, the team employed high-speed synchronized cameras to record three pigeons as they maneuvered around a 90-degree turn in an enclosed space.

The researchers were able to snap about 500 frames per second and analyze the position of the birds’ body and wings during low-speed flight.

The video allowed the team to track the varying positions of the birds’ wings relative to their bodies and each wing segment’s weight.

They then applied Newton’s second law – force equals mass times acceleration – to calculate the aerodynamic forces at work.

The results were surprising.

Despite the pigeons’ ability to flap one wing faster than the other – or move them in different trajectories – when making turns, the birds used their bodies, rather than strengthening their wing strokes.

See for yourself in the video above.

“Birds indeed turn somewhat like helicopters, meaning that helicopters themselves also have this uniformly directed force relative to the body,” said Ros, adding that unmanned aerial vehicles might one day fly like the much-maligned bird.

The team has not yet tested the maneuvering patterns of species other than pigeons. But it’s hoping to discover that this idea has wings in other birds, too.

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