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Flying robots inspired by birds?
06:02 - Source: CNN

Art of Movement is CNN’s monthly show exploring the latest innovations in art, culture, science and technology.

Story highlights

Researchers studying bird flight to help build better flying robots

Ultra slow motion footage reveals secrets of hummingbird flight

Stanford University developing a robot that can fold its wings while flying

Will take decades to fully mimic birds' complex flight, researchers say

Palo Alto, California CNN  — 

Early morning in a soon-to-be sun-baked cactus garden in Palo Alto, California; as most life yawns into movement, one creature is already darting between the bright red cactus flowers in a blur of electric speed.

A three-inch-long Hummingbird hovers – bristling among cactus spines, drinking nectar – before breaking backwards, rising effortlessly over a gust of wind, and diving down out of sight.

For the Stanford University students covertly watching, each move is executed quicker than a blinking eye. But when they take their high-speed video camera back to the lab and slow down their footage to a snail’s pace, the bird’s blurred motion becomes clear and the researchers get the information they came for: elusive clues to the secret of the hummingbird’s flight.

Natural inspiration

Miniature flying robots have come a long way in the last few years, now mastering incredible athletic feats. But when it comes to dealing with the unpredictable world around them, our best man-made flying machines still have a long way to go to match nature’s impressive creations.

Read: The drone that’s your personal tour guide

And that’s why, to create new flying robots that work in the world outside the lab, these pioneering researchers are looking to birds.

“I study how birds fly and I use it as an inspiration for developing new robots,” says David Lentink, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University.

“Small micro air vehicles that can fly close to buildings or in cluttered environments or through turbulence, they actually encounter the exact same problems that birds have encountered for millions of years and solved,” he adds.

How to fly

To build the next generation of micro air vehicles, Lentink aims to understand how a bird powers its agile maneuvers, and why a pair of flapping wings gives a bird the power to ease through turbulent skies.

But the team is currently being held back by our lack of crucial knowledge.