Improved Drone Cameras Inspired By Swan’s Springy Neck

An unlikely source of inspiration lies behind Stanford University researchers’ efforts to improve video captured by aerial drones. The engineers have used high-speed video footage and computer models to reveal that whooper swans stabilize their head with a complex neck that’s tuned like a car suspension.

Swans and geese are a marvel to aeronautical engineers. Even plump geese can perform remarkable aerial acrobatics—twisting their body and flapping their powerful wings while keeping their head completely still.

The findings have influenced the novel design of a new camera suspension system that could allow drones to record steadier video.

Researchers came up with a method for comparing high-speed video data of a whooper swan flying over a lake with a computer model that approximated the springy damping effects of the bird’s neck that allow it to stabilize the vertical disturbances.

Suspension System

They found the neck functions much like how a car’s suspension system provides a smooth ride over a bumpy road. The neck vertebrae and muscles respond with just the right stiffness and flexibility to passively keep the head steady during flapping flight, and even in mild gusts.

David Lentink, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University, says:

“This simple mechanism is a remarkable finding, considering the daunting complexity of avian neck morphology with about 20 vertebrae and more than 200 muscles on each side.”

The current work has provided guidelines for a prototype swan-inspired passive camera suspension system, developed by Marina Dimitrov, one of Lentink’s undergraduate students, that could allow drones with flapping wings to record better video.

Ashley E. Pete, Daniel Kress, Marina A. Dimitrov, David Lentink
The role of passive avian head stabilization in flapping flight
J. R. Soc. Interface 2015 12 20150508; DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2015.0508.