Since the accepted models explaining these vortices proved to be wrong, Gutierrez and his colleagues hope to contribute to a new model that could be used to predict the lift generated by flying animals. Bio-inspired robots are a specialty of Lentink and his students, who developed the first flapping robot that can take off and land vertically like an insect, as well as a swift-like robot with wings that deform as it swoops and glides.
Lentink pointed out that flying animals are more efficient and maneuverable than even the slickest and most modern human-designed aircraft. The bar-tailed godwit, for example, weighs mere ounces, yet can fly nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand with ease.
RELATED: This Bird Lives Nearly Its Entire Life in the Air
"Birds can take off like a helicopter and fly fast and far like an airplane," Lentink said.
He continued that "birds are great at flying in turbulent flow... found around trees and buildings, where aerial robots stall and crash. Bats and insects are also very accomplished flyers in their own right, so understanding how animals fly is a huge inspiration for inventing better flying robots."
Geoff Spedding of the USC's Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering also gains inspiration from flying animals, and has studied bats and other critter flyers.
Spedding told Seeker that he's "delighted that more sophisticated measurements are being applied to animal flight," thanks to the studies on Obi and other animals in Lentink's lab.
"It is interesting to note that the key technology here is in the bird-safety-goggles," Spedding added. "These are ultimately what allow the motions close to the bird to be recorded. As a community, we always search for improved and more realistic descriptions of nature, and ways in which real-life can be simplified into a useful and practical model. This work will be relevant and helpful in this respect."