Why bird-like drones can help with saving energy

Category: Technology/Innovations


Unlocking Word Meanings

Read the following words/expressions found in today’s article.

  1. intuitive / ɪnˈtu ɪ tɪv / (adj.) – relating to something that’s understood or agreed upon without any proof or evidence; based on feelings

    Sarah has an intuitive understanding of people’s emotions. She often knows how they feel even before they say a word.

  2. simulate / ˈsɪm yəˌleɪt / (v.) – to make or produce something that is not real but has the appearance or feeling of being real

    He uses a machine to simulate the skills he needs to learn in driving a truck.

  3. feasible / ˈfi zə bəl / (adj.) – relating to something that can happen or be done

    It is feasible to finish the project before the deadline.

  4. collaborate / kəˈlæb əˌreɪt / (v.) – to work together with another person or group to do something

    He collaborates with a team to finish more work quickly.

  5. peer-review / pɪər rɪˈvyu / (v.) – to read, check, and provide an opinion about something that’s been written by another researcher

    The research has to be peer-reviewed by a group of professors.


Read the text below.

Humans may have been able to create technology to realize their age-old dream of flying long ago. But there is still a lot to learn from the avian masters of the skies.

At a university in the Netherlands, researchers are exploring ways for drones to mimic how birds “hover” in the wind to reduce the energy needed to stay aloft.

It might look unassuming, like a basic small model plane. But the drone hovering in the wind tunnel at Delft University in the Netherlands is mimicking energy-saving behavior that can be observed in birds when they soar using thermals which are warm currents of air.

“We tried to mimic the birds’ flight behavior,” explains Sunyou Hwang, a Ph.D. student leading the project. “For example, kestrels do so-called wind hovering when they are hunting, so they stay in the air without flapping their wings. Then they don’t use that much energy because they don’t flap their wings.” But while birds have an intuitive understanding of the wind, “teaching” a drone to simulate this skill is less straightforward.

The researchers could also program the drone to autonomously find a new soaring spot when the wind field changes during the flight.

“We didn’t use prior knowledge of the wind field, so this MAV (Micro Air Vehicle) didn’t know what kind of wind field we have, and it has to find that feasible position by itself,” says Sunyou Hwang.

Bart Remes, who collaborates on the research and mentors Hwang’s Ph.D. work, says that observing birds’ behavior meant that “we know that it is possible” – but that prior to the experiments they did not know how great the efficiency savings might be or what the optimal position was.

And while the researchers focus on “fundamental research, so we don’t know what the application will be,” Remes says the knowledge gained could be useful for a range of projects and applications in the future.

Their work has yet to be peer-reviewed and the team is just one group of researchers looking to the natural world to improve man-made aircraft.

This article was provided by The Associated Press.

Viewpoint Discussion

Enjoy a discussion with your tutor.

Discussion A

  • Humans have been able to create technology to achieve the age-old dream of flying. What kind of flying experience do you want humans to achieve in the future (ex. planes that don’t use gas, planes that can be driven by ordinary people)? Why? Discuss.
  • The research team from a university in the Netherlands is observing and trying to mimic birds’ flight behavior. If you were a researcher or scientist, what animal behavior would you incorporate into a technology? Why? Discuss.

Discussion B

  • According to the article, the research team’s work has yet to be peer-reviewed. Peer review is a process by which a study is checked and reviewed by a group of experts in the same field. What do you think is the importance of peer review? Discuss.
  • If a certain research is not peer-reviewed, would you trust its findings or conclusion? Why or why not? Discuss.