UAVs Schooled In Thermals By Peregrine Falcons

UAVs seeking to ride thermal air currents to increase their air time while using less fuel would do well to listen to the lessons taught by peregrine falcons.


(Peregrine falcons show UAVs how to use thermal air currents)

Today, Zsuzsa Ákos at Eötvös University in Hungary and a few pals suggest another approach inspired by videos and GPS tracking of peregrine falcons in flight. It turns out that these masters of thermal soaring employ a counter-intuitive strategy: instead of spiralling in one direction to stay with a single thermal, they constantly change the direction of their spirals.

At first glance, that seems odd. Change the direction of your spiral and you immediately fly out of a thermal. But Ákos and co have simulated this strategy and say there is a method in this madness.

The key is to recognise that the atmosphere is filled with thermals that are distributed in 3D space in complex ways. According to their simulation, the reason why the direction change works so well is that it allows the flier to sample the volume of the atmosphere more effectively, making it more likely that it will find a better thermal. Crucially, this works particularly well when turbulence is present.

The new strategy is computationally simple and so requires little power to implement. So the thinking is that UAVs could fly for longer, using less power, if they copied the falcon's flying behaviour.

I don't know how long UAV designers have thought about this idea, but the first place I read about it was in Roger Zelazny's excellent 1980 science/fantasy novel Changeling. In the story, small, robot planes called 'tracer-birds' detect and ride air currents:

The dark birdforms dotted the mountaintops like statues of prehistoric beasts, wings outspread...

...they stirred, almost simultaneously, as if shaken by a sudden breeze. They began to flex their wings.

Soon, one by one, they dropped from the heights, caught the air, rose, found their way, found their patterns, resumed their journey...
(Read more about Roger Zelazny's tracer-birds)

Be sure to read about another approach to using thermals in Autonomous Soaring Project UAV Cloud Swift.

Via Peregrine Falcons Inspire New Thermal Soaring Strategy for UAVs at MIT's Technology Review.

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