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Programming Drones to Fly Like Birds

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A robotic drone in the form of a bird.

Researchers are striving to enable autonomous robotic planes to mimic the aerial performance of birds.

Credit: Festo

Pennsylvania State University (PSU) researchers say they are developing autonomous robotic planes that could eventually think, or at least react, for themselves. The goal is to have the drones more closely mimic the aerial performance of birds.

For example, an albatross uses dynamic soaring to stay aloft for days and fly for thousands of miles over open ocean while hardly flapping its wings. The Penn State researchers currently are working on a project to make dynamic soaring autonomous. "Our part is, given data that we can measure from the airplane, to build up a computer map of what the wind field looks like, so that we know the wind velocity as it changes," says PSU professor Jack Langelaan. "Then we can use that information to figure out the best way to fly."

The researchers also want to imitate soaring on thermals--atmospheric hot spots that contain pockets of rising air.

The researchers are developing planes in flocks whose individual members can communicate, sharing information on the locations of thermals as soon as they are discovered. "They all cooperate, so we build up a dynamic map of the immediate area," which enables the drones to "stay in the air as long as the sun is shining," Langelaan says.

From Penn State News
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