Next time you look up at the sky at a flock of birds, pay close attention. They might not be what you think they are.
Scientists at New Mexico Tech are using birds preserved by taxidermy and turning them into drones.
“We are trying to develop this technology to help wildlife and to help understand birds, not to hurt them,” said Mostafa Hassanalian, Ph.D., an associate professor of mechanical engineering at New Mexico Tech. He has done research on drones for more than 15 years and had this specific idea for more than a decade.
They never hurt any birds physically and purchase birds and wings through local taxidermy businesses and online.
“We came with this idea, well all right if the bird is dead and taxidermied, we have all the structure, so if we do reverse engineering, we can re-engineer them, and make them as a drone,” he said. “We can develop some nature-friendly drones,” he said.
Hassanalian said this could have three major uses. The first is wildlife monitoring.
“We observed that the current drones that are being used for wildlife monitoring, they have potential dangers to the wildlife,” he said.
The second possible application is formation flight. Studying how birds save energy and the purpose behind their formations could help other industries.
“We want to apply those applications to the aviation industry in order to save more energy and consume less fuel,” Hassanalian said.
The third is bird strike avoidance. He said the bird drones can potentially fly around the airplanes to scare the other birds so they avoid bird strikes.
To put this issue in perspective, the FAA has reported more than 2,000 possible bird strikes so far this year across the U.S.
Right now, most of Hassanalian’s testing has been done in a drone cage or in a field.
“We don’t know how the birds are going to react,” he said. “Once we get the approvals, we might be able to see.”
He has, however, observed how other birds perceive the drones when testing them in the field on campus. “Usually we see other birds that are flying around so, based on our observation, they didn't understand these are bio birds,” Hassanalian said.
Hassanalian has big goals for his flapping-wing drone research, but more research needs to be done before they take to the skies.