Taxidermy birds are taking flight once again, attached to flapping-wing drones. The unusual project, led by researchers at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, is meant to create a device that can help study bird flight and monitor wildlife in a relatively non-invasive way.
“Instead of using artificial materials for building drones, we can use the dead birds and re-engineer them as a drone,” Mostafa Hassanalian, a mechanical engineer who is leading the research, told New Scientist’s Jeremy Hsu in February.
This strategy makes for a wildlife monitoring device that’s “nature-friendly,” he tells Smithsonian magazine in an email. By working with local taxidermy artists, researchers ensured no live birds were harmed to make the drones.
The scientists presented their research in January at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech 2023 Forum.
People around the world use drones for a wide range of purposes, including documenting climate change, taking photographs, delivering goods and conducting military surveillance, according to the Imperial War Museums in England. Currently, more than 1.1 million recreational drones are registered with the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States.
But drones can cause problems for wildlife. For example, birds that are frightened by the devices can abandon their nests, leaving young chicks unprotected, according to the Golden Gate Audubon Society. And birds will sometimes attack drones, which can lead to injury.
“Traditional drones are often disruptive to ecosystems due to issues such as sound and unfamiliarity, so developing quieter, natural-looking alternatives could help wildlife monitoring and research,” Hassanalian says via email.
To design the avian drones, the researchers attach parts of taxidermy birds to small electric motors with mechanical wings, writes the Washington Post’s Kyle Melnick.
“This removes the need to design and manufacture a wing, [which] is notably difficult as wings are challenging to model and correctly size,” Raphael Zufferey, who studies flapping-wing robots at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and did not contribute to the research, tells New Scientist.
“If we use artificial material, we cannot get the perfect flapping motion,” Hassanalian told KRQE’s Chris McKee in February.
Currently, the drones can stay airborne for up to 20 minutes, reports Liliana Salgado for Reuters. The machines are not nearly as agile as living birds, but they can flap to move forward, hover and glide on hot thermal currents, per Popular Science’s Andrew Paul. The researchers use computer software to simulate a flapping motion.
“We want to fly them and flap them similar to birds to understand the physics,” Hassanalian tells the Post. By studying the bird drones and adding data to their computer program after each flight test, the researchers could learn ways to improve flight technology and make the bird drones stay airborne for longer.
Beyond that, the drones could one day be used to learn more about migrating birds’ flight patterns, as well as how the animals fly long distances.
“The remarkable resemblance of the robot to a real bird could be a large advantage when flying among birds,” Zufferey tells New Scientist.
Brenden Herkenhoff, a researcher at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, tells Reuters that he’s using the drones to study how the color of birds’ wings impacts their flight efficiency. Further, airports near water could also use the bird drones to prevent collisions with planes, Hassanalian tells Smithsonian.
While the authors write in their paper that militaries could theoretically use future versions of the bird drones for surveillance, wildlife monitoring remains the project’s main goal, Hassanalian says to Popular Science.