Despite thousands of birds might fly together in a flock, you’ll never seem them crashing into each other — not even when two flocks fly into each other from opposite direction. Professor Mandyam Srinivasan and colleagues from the University of Queensland, Australia, think they’ve finally found out how birds manage to pull this off: a combination of varying altitude and, most importantly, veering right — always!
“Birds must have been under strong evolutionary pressure to establish basic rules and strategies to minimise the risk of collision in advance,” Professor Srinivasan said.
“But no previous studies have ever examined what happens when two birds fly towards each other.”
To study how birds respond to a possible mid-flight collision, the researchers recorded ten budgerigars who were released from the opposite ends of a tunnel. In total, 102 flights were filmed with high-speed cameras and not one single collision was observed, despite some close calls.
After painstakingly studying frame by frame the strategies employed by the birds, the researchers found the birds rarely flew at the same altitude. It may be that each individual has its preferences for flying at a certain height. It might also be that the position within a group hierarchy determines the flight altitude — this is the subject of an upcoming research.
What the models undeniably suggest, however, is that the birds always veer right when faced with the prospect of hitting a neighbor. The findings published in PLOS One might be helpful to improve aircraft autopilot features by making them safer.
“As air traffic becomes increasing busy, there is a pressing need for robust automatic systems for manned and unmanned aircraft, so there are real lessons to be learned from nature,” said Srinivasan.
“As air traffic becomes increasing busy, there is a pressing need for robust automatic systems for manned and unmanned aircraft, so there are real lessons to be learned from nature.”