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Flying animals can teach drones a thing or two

Small drones will soon be zipping between trees and dodging buildings, just like swallows, bees and moths

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10:30am, January 24, 2015
Robot bird illustration

BIOMIMICRY  Scientists are turning to the animal kingdom to inspire the next wave of small drones.

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Ty Hedrick stands on a riverbank watching an aerial clash between two foes.

An intruder has ventured into restricted airspace and must flee as quickly as it came. The wind shifts as the pursuer dips when the invader dips, curls when it curls. They match each other step for step, or more accurately, wingbeat for wingbeat.

The battle pits two cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) against each other, midnight blue on their backs and pumpkin orange on their throats.

For Hedrick, a biologist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, swallows are the top guns of the animal kingdom. As the birds careen overhead, Hedrick captures their deft maneuvers, snapping 100 images per second with three high-speed cameras. He and his team trace the positions of cliff swallows as they battle for territory. Through research like this, the scientists have learned that the birds perform extreme high-speed turns that would

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