The Loh Down On Science

Birds' Need for Speed Limits

Fly free, fly fast! Just ... not too fast.

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science, with a speed limit for the birds. And anything else that flies--like ... unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

After all, who needs human pilots?

Biologists at Harvard and engineers at MIT are creating the fastest and fleetest UAVs that have ever whizzed through the air. But because they don't want to build something that's going to crash in a dense forest, they also want to know: How fast is too fast?

Naturally, the team looked to the sky.

Birds of prey zip through a forest, foraging without crashing. The researchers, wanting that same power, did some calculating and turned the birds' flight into ... drumroll please ... differential equations!

They work like this: Plug in the density of trees--or whatever objects might bring you down--and voila! Out pops a speed limit.

Birds naturally intuit this limit. After all, who's ever seen a hawk with a concussion?

But robots? Don't intuit anything. Which is why they need their human masters. At least for now.



The Loh Down on Science, online, at lohdown.org. Produced by 89.3 KPCC and the California Institute of Technology, and made possible by TIAA-CREF.

Follow us on Twitter at LohDown.


blog comments powered by Disqus