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Swans' flight characteristics inspire drone camera steadying system

31 August 2015

The way whooper swans keep their heads steady during flapping flight gives Stanford engineers insights into steadier drone camera suspension systems.

Whooper swans stabilise their head with a complex neck that's tuned like a car suspension (image: Shutterstock)

Swans and geese are the envy of aeronautical engineers. Even plump geese can perform remarkable aerial acrobatics – twisting their body and flapping their powerful wings while keeping their head completely still.

Now, Stanford engineers have used high-speed video footage and computer models to reveal that whooper swans stabilise their head with a complex neck that's tuned like a car suspension. The study, published in Journal of the Royal Society Interface, has influenced the researchers' design of a camera suspension system that could allow drones to record steadier video.

All birds have built-in vision stabilisation to compensate for the up and down body motion caused by flapping their wings in flight. Scientists have studied the neck morphology and head motions of walking or stationary birds, but measuring the mechanism in flight has not been successful until now.

David Lentink, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford, and his colleagues devised a method for comparing high-speed video data of a whooper swan flying over a lake with a computer model that approximated the springy damping effects of the bird's neck that allow it to stabilise the vertical disturbances.

They found that the neck functions similarly to the way a car's suspension system provides a smooth ride over a bumpy road. The neck vertebrae and muscles respond with just the right stiffness and flexibility to keep the head steady during flapping flight, and even in mild gusts.

"This simple mechanism is a remarkable finding considering the daunting complexity of avian neck morphology with about 20 vertebrae and more than 200 muscles on each side," says Lentink, the senior author of the Royal Society Interface paper.

Lentink credits much of the work to former student, Ashley Pete, the first author of the paper, who developed the idea and methodology.

This current work has provided guidelines for a prototype swan-inspired passive camera suspension system (see YouTube clip), developed by Marina Dimitrov, one of Lentink's undergraduate students, that could allow drones with flapping wings to record better video.

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