How nature is helping shape drone design
Whooper Swans

Engineers at Stanford University have finally discovered how whooper swans keep their heads steady during flapping flight. This discovery has allowed them to develop a camera suspension system that could enable drones to produce crisper video footage.

For a long time, aeronautical engineers have envied swans and geese for their extraordinary abilities to perform remarkable acrobatic movements and flap their large wings, while keeping their head entirely still.

After extensive research involving high-speed video recording and computer models, Stanford engineers have arrived at the conclusion that whooper swans keep their heads steady with the help of a complex neck that's tuned like a car suspension. Their study inspired them to design a camera suspension system that may be the answer to steadier video footage captured by drones.

“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,” said David Lentink, the senior author on the study and an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford.

While scientists have studied the head movements of walking or stationary birds for some time, translating their observations into measuring the mechanism during flight has not been successful until today.

Lentink and his colleagues created a process that compares the high-speed video data of a whooper swan flying over a lake with a computer model that guesstimated the springy damping effects of the bird's neck, which enabled it to stabilise the vertical disturbances.

Their findings revealed the neck acted similarly to a car's suspension system, which is able to provide a smooth ride over a bumpy road. The vertebrae and muscles of the neck react with just the right amounts of stiffness and flexibility to keep the head stable when the birds flap their wings.

Lentink's lab group focuses on biology and engineering, and aims to enhance drone design and performance through understanding and adopting key characteristics from flying birds. These findings have provided guidelines for a prototype passive camera suspension system that could lead to better video footage recorder by drones with flapping wings.