November 22, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Let the Birds Teach You

The ancient prophet Job said, “But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you; And the birds of the air, and they will tell you” (Job 12:7).  Maybe the birds of the air can tell us how to fly, and the beasts of the sea how to navigate.  Some scientists are trying that without referencing old Job.

  1. Fly like a bird:  “Should airplanes look like birds?  Engineers envision more fuel-efficient design” was the headline on PhysOrg.  Two researchers tried to start a new design for fuel efficient flying machines.  Lo and behold, they landed on a bird shape.  It’s a bird; it’s a plane.  Specifically, it resembles a seagull, reported Live Science.  That shape works better for flying than the kiwi model.
  2. Sing like a bird:  A story on PhysOrg was not exactly about a stool pigeon, but about a team of Harvard researchers who invented a device made out of rubber tubing that can mimic the songs of birds.
  3. Hum like a hummingbird:  A researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory has created a robot that mimics the flight of a hummingbird.  Actually, he only has the wing part down, and is missing some other things: “B.J. Balakumar’s robotic hummingbird wing isn’t as pretty as the real thing,” Live Science reported.  “It lacks jewel-like colors and the iridescent glint of hummingbird feathers.  But what the unadorned metal wing does have is the ability to help researchers understand how the tiny fliers manage to dart, hover and dive even in gusty winds.”  The working prototype is a long way off.
  4. Sing with the dolphins:  Man-made sonar has trouble with bubble clouds.  That set researchers thinking about how dolphins get their signals through them.  Science Daily reported that the research team noted that dolphins create bubble nets when hunting, but don’t seem to lose their sonar.  Curious about how they do it, Timothy Leighton started thinking like a dolphin.  “There were no recordings of the type of sonar that dolphins use in bubble nets, so instead of producing a bio-inspired sonar by copying dolphin signals, I sat down and worked out what pulse I would use if I were a dolphin,” he said.
        The result was twin inverted pulse sonar, or TWIPS, that “exploits the way that bubbles pulsate in sound fields, which affects the characteristics of sonar echoes.”  Two pulses are sent, one the inverse of the other, the second a fraction of a second later.  This makes the signal able to “enhance scatter from the target while simultaneously suppressing clutter from bubbles.”  First test results are encouraging: TWIPS outperforms regular sonar, and may lead to improvements in harbor protection and medical imaging.  As for how dolphins perform sonar so well, Leighton said, “How they successfully detect prey in bubbly water remains a mystery that we are working to solve.”  PhysOrg also wrote about this story.

Ever since the Wright brothers and their predecessors observed them to discern their secrets, birds have continued to inspire the imagination of inventors wanting to match their grace and efficiency.  Dolphins, too, do more than just delight audiences at marine parks.  These are just a few of the many living things whose abilities are leading careful observers to design better artificial systems for the improvement of human life.

Maybe God made these things to keep us humble.  For all the abilities of the human body, which are impressive, we all wish we could do some of the things animals can do.  Not many animals are trying to imitate humans, except maybe the family dog, a dancing bear, and trained chimpanzees in the movies.  But they have different motives – the desire for food.

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