Using Super-Slow Motion To Study The Biomechanics Of Flight

DARPA’s hummingbird drone might be terrifying, but it’s pretty remarkable that we’ve been able to create a bot that mimics that kind of agility. Researchers at Stanford armed with high-speed cameras are studying the minutiae of bird flight frame-by-frame to see if we can’t one day make these bots even nimbler. That’s right, super-slow motion — for science.

It turns out that while we understand the basics of how birds fly, we’re totally ignorant of the details. So mechanical engineering professor David Lentink and his students have been filming hummingbirds and other winged vertebrates at 3300 frames-per-second to see if they can unpack some of the biomechanical magic that separates birds from the clumsy RC drones at the park.

It’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen hummingbirds in slow motion, but the engineer’s perspective adds a new facet to our fascination with beasts that can fly. Thanks to hours of footage recorded in the lab, the researchers are making some progress identifying how the tiny moving parts of living aircraft work together. Take, for example, the shaking motion the researchers observed:

Students Andreas Peña Doll and Rivers Ingersoll filmed hummingbirds performing a never-before-seen “shaking” behavior: As the bird dived off a branch, it wiggled and twisted its body along its spine, the same way a wet dog would try to dry off. At 55 times per second, hummingbirds have the fastest body shake among vertebrates on the planet — almost twice as fast as a mouse.

So now we’ve seen it, which is just the beginning when it comes to engineering. Now someone has to figure out what purpose that shaking serves, and, if it’s useful, someone has to build a bot that can mimic nature. [Stanford]