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Scientists discover how birds navigate crosswinds

While pilots rely on radio signals, advanced computations and other tools to keep them on course during strong crosswinds, birds can naturally navigate these demanding conditions -- in environments with little visibility. To understand how, National Science Foundation-funded researchers studied lovebirds flying in a crosswind tunnel that features customizable wind and light settings. The results could inspire more robust and computationally efficient visual control algorithms for autonomous aerial robots. This is the first study of how birds orient their bodies, necks and heads to fly through extreme 45-degree crosswinds over short ranges -- both in bright visual environments and in dark, cave-like environments, where faint points of light are the only beacons. The lovebirds navigated all environments equally well. The researchers found that lovebirds navigate by stabilizing and fixating their gaze on the goal, while yawing their bodies into a crosswind. Staying on course requires them to contort their necks by 30 degrees or more. A computer-simulated model indicated that, while neck control is active, body reorientation into the wind is achieved passively.

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