11 Things Human Engineers Are Learning From Birds

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We should really consider retiring “bird brain” as an insult: Engineers are learning a lot about efficient avian habits and applying that knowledge to how we develop aircraft and other technology. Here’s how birds are inspiring our best inventive minds to shoot for the skies.

1. The Woodpecker as Shock Absorber 

You’re not alone if you’ve ever spotted a woodpecker bashing its beak into a tree trunk and wondered how their tiny little noggins can withstand the trauma—scientists have pondered the same thing. They discovered that certain portions of the bird’s multi-layered beak and skull are soft and absorbent, which allows them to dilute energy before any harm comes to their brains. Creating protective shields using similar designs could mean insulating space shuttles from space debris and football players from harmful impact. (They've already proven to protect delicate electronics from harm.)

2. V is for Efficiency

There’s a good reason birds tend to fly in a V-shaped formation: The lead bird can create lift that trailing friends pick up and recycle, which means they can fly for longer without getting tired. Engineers consider this a kind of surfing, and it’s helping them devise aircraft flight strategies that conserve more fuel than ever before.

3. Building Better Flooring 

Commercial buildings need to stand up to a heavy and steady flow of foot traffic. To absorb thousands of footsteps, future floor slabs may take a cue from crow skulls, which are comprised of a series of “shell” layers connected by organic ties and struts. The end result might be a stronger, thinner surface with more structural integrity that conventional flooring.

4. Drone On 

Drones have far-reaching uses beyond military or mail-order services: A properly equipped craft can fight forest fires or air-spot poachers. In order to perform more complex tasks, however, they’ll need to mimic a bird’s ability to navigate between—and through—obstacles like trees. With enough data, scientists hope to be able to replicate how birds’ wings fold and adapt to their environment, as well as make hairpin turns.

5. Owls May Help Reduce Aircraft Noise 

One reason owls seem (but really aren’t!) spooky is that they’re little nocturnal ninjas, moving around in silence thanks to serrated feathers on the front of the wing, tattered feathers on the back of the wing, and noise-reducing leg feathers. Planes may soon incorporate fringed wings and covered landing gear to lessen decibel levels.

6. The Ostrich Rescue 

Not all birds need to take flight to inspire robotic evolution. Because ostriches walk on two legs, they’re a perfect case study in how to navigate through obstacles and rough terrain. Bipedal robots are being developed with similar leg posture that allows for high speeds while maintaining balance.

7. A Better Landing 

Getting drones or other small aircraft to land in an exact spot is tricky, which is why developers are fascinated by how birds are able to zero in on and perch atop extremely narrow targets. They’ve observed that flaring wings create drag, which slows descent; to copy that ability, engineers are working to develop a tail with a motor that can course-correct in a split second. Eventually, we may be able to land robots on something as narrow as a power line.

8. The Hummingbird Helicopter 

The hummingbird’s ability to hover in one place is one of nature’s most impressive feats. While micro-helicopters can come close to their performance (despite spinning rather than flapping), engineers are evaluating the birds to see how they can better close the gap and improve rotor power by nearly 30 percent.

9. A Beak that Brings Water to Deserts 

Shore birds have beaks that can capture water droplets in a kind of clothespin movement, closing them to move water toward their throat. Researchers copied this to create a device that can harvest fog, capturing droplets as it passes through and creating water for arid areas. The hope is to design one efficient enough to produce a day’s worth of drinking water.

10. A Quieter Bullet Train 

Japanese bullet trains move so quickly that entering a tunnel creates a phenomenon known as a “tunnel boom” as the air pressure suddenly increases. To solve the problem, engineers looked at birds that are able to dive quickly into water without disturbing it. The train’s nose was remodeled to better resemble the birds’ narrowing beaks, therein reducing air resistance and improving energy efficiency by 13 percent.

11. The Eagle Grip 

There’s no wasted movement when an eagle plucks its prey from land or water: It swoops in with its legs pointing forward, and swings them backwards while closing in on the prey, never pausing. Drone engineers are studying that claw machine-style action so that machines can pluck objects from the ground without stopping and wasting precious energy.

Since the early days of flight, birds have inspired how planes are engineered. Visit Boeing.com to see how birds are continuing to provide inspiration in aviation.

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