Arizona Flight Control Researchers Turn to Birds for Inspiration

Nancy Anderson
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Engineering seeks to solve problems in novel ways, and one of the ways it does that is to look to nature for solutions. Why reinvent the wheel? There are good reasons, sure, but more often that not, if you want to make new wheels, you can get a pretty good start by looking at which wheels are already available. Engineers are, for the most part, motivated to solve problems in the most efficient manner, and nature’s had plenty of time to refine its designs.

To that end, researchers at the University of Arizona are looking to birds and bees to help with autonomous decision making in the field of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). The research, conducted by the university’s College of Engineering’s Hybrid Dynamics and Control Lab, looks to simulate control systems for small craft or groups of craft that can do everything from route planning to decision making for flight controls. To that end, they’re using a large indoor motion-capture camera system to capture position data for the UAVs they’re testing.

Where traditional control systems for flying vehicles are designed mostly with a mind to damping out the perturbations associated with thermal updrafts and other disturbances, the team’s control system takes these into account, and seeks them out, just as birds do in nature. In automonous soaring mode, if the system detects a gain in altitude that the navigation system didn’t order, it will search the vicinity for a thermal in order to gain altitude without expending additional fuel.

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Mike Wrightly is mostly diesel fumes and duct tape; he grew up around heavy equipment, and holds a Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering.



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