The "right" stuff: Birds show the way when it comes to avoiding mid-air collisions

The study examined budgerigars, like these, to learn more about how birds avoid accidents while in flight(Credit: suwatsir/Depositphotos)

Since the dawn of aviation we've turned to birds as a way of pursuing our aerial aspirations, and despite more than a century of soaring through the skies there's still a lot we can learn from our feathered friends. The latest example of this is a study finding that birds avoid mid-air crashes with one another by always turning to the right when faced with an impending collision, something that might help in the design of anti-crash systems on aircraft in the future.

Closely studying birds is an approach to aviation research that has proven quite fruitful. The Wright Brothers themselves spent a huge amount of time observing birds before achieving their first flight in 1903, and some current day examples of this include looking at shape-shifting bird wings for low-energy aircraft and how hovering kestrels gain altitude without using power. But for researchers at Australia's University of Queensland, there was an area that had not yet been properly explored.

"Birds must have been under strong evolutionary pressure to establish basic rules and strategies to minimize the risk of collision in advance," said Professor Mandyam Srinivasan, who led the study. "But no previous studies have ever examined what happens when two birds fly towards each other. Our modeling has shown that birds always veer right - and sometimes they change their altitude as well, according to some pre-set preference."

The team made this discovery by running experiments where pairs of budgerigars, small Australian parakeets, were set in flight from opposing ends of a tunnel. The birds were filmed with a high-speed camera as they flapped towards one another so the researchers could see how they avoided a crash. Using 10 different birds across 102 flights, not a single collision occurred, and the team says this is because they always veered to the right.

What the researchers also found was that the birds would usually fly at different heights. While they are not sure of the reasons for this and the question requires more research, they say that their early findings can provide useful lessons for engineers of both manned and unmanned aircraft, with airspace poised to become busier and busier.

"While we can't say how birds solve the problem of switching to different altitudes, we can propose some simple strategies for autopilot systems and unmanned aerials vehicles to prevent head-on collisions," says Srinivasan.

The research was published in the journal PLOS One.

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