Student designs drone to study starlings

March 27, 2014 by Ed Moorhouse
Student designs drone to study starlings
Scott Davis makes repairs to his octocopter.

(Phys.org) —Like something out of a science fiction movie, Scott Davis's remote controlled "octocopter" hovers above the ground and then soars over treetops, attracting the attention of onlookers who glance skyward.

With eight arms that branch out of a gear-shaped centerpiece, each topped with black propellers and wheels affixed to four legs to ensure a soft landing, Davis's invention resembles some sort of alien aircraft. But the Rutgers University-Camden senior isn't interested in something from out of this world. He designed the drone to study flight patterns of of .

"You see this cohesiveness among flocks of birds in flight, but how tied together are their movements," asks Davis, a U.S. Navy veteran and biology major from Folsom. "How does each member of the flock affect the others in order to maintain cohesive movement?"

Rather than observe the birds from the ground, Davis is taking his research to the air. He designed and built the octocopter drone, which carries two cameras to record birds in flight. The drone can fly more than 700 feet high and Davis controls it remotely.

"By recording the birds in flight, we'll be able to generate a three-dimensional map of individual positions within the flock to allow us to measure the distance between each bird, analyze their motions, and see how fast one bird responds to another bird's movement," Davis says.

Student designs drone to study starlings
Starlings are known to fly in massive flocks called murmurations.

Davis, a senior, is interested in the dynamics of the flock and any physiological mechanisms that allow a bird to respond to another's movements while in flight. Davis says, "We hope to learn what birds are using to conserve their position in small and large groups."

He is particularly interested in starlings, which are known to gather in flocks called murmurations. It's quite common to observe hundreds of thousands of starlings in one murmuration. To see them fly together is like watching a massive moving, dark abstraction in the sky.

"We have a pretty good idea of the group dynamics of flocks of larger birds, like geese," Davis explains. "We know that a V-formation is aerodynamically advantageous to geese, and that a goose flying in the front of a V-formation has a much faster heartbeat than a goose in the back. As they change position, their heart rate will change. But starlings have the ability to form these massive murmurations and it actually looks as if it's one fluid movement. Imagine holding hands with thousands of other people and running together as one cohesive unit. That's what these murmurations are like."

Davis says the birds may come together in this massive flock to gather food or defend against predators. "We want to know what the rules are per bird for participating in this activity and from that we can try and understand the rationale behind it. It's a hard phenomenon to explain."

William Saidel, an associate professor of biology at Rutgers-Camden who is advising Davis on his project, points out that this work is expressive of a relatively new facet to the study of groups.

Student designs drone to study starlings
Davis's octocopter is capable of photographing bird flight formations.

"At the present time, we think murmuration – or the shape of smaller flocks found locally – is an emergent global property of the flock resulting from local interactions of interwoven groups of six of seven neighboring individuals," Saidel says. "Since each individual is a member of multiple groups, the flight instructions propagate exceedingly fast throughout the flock."

To better understand these patterns, the researchers intend to observe them from the side and from above. Davis designed the himself, from the platform's mechanical framework to the electrical control systems. He is working in a research group that includes Saidel and Benedetto Piccoli, the Joseph and Loretta Lopez chair of the Department of Mathematics as well as several other students.

The research project combines biology with math, computer programming, and aeronautical engineering and is being funded in part by the participants and by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Rutgers Undergraduate Research Fund.

"Rutgers–Camden has given me an opportunity to work on a project like this while combining so many different disciplines and that's an experience you just can't get anywhere else," Davis says.

Explore further: Secrets of flocking revealed

Related Stories

Secrets of flocking revealed

October 26, 2011

Watching thousands of birds fly in a highly coordinated, yet leaderless, flock can be utterly baffling to humans. Now, new research is peeling back the layers of mystery to show how exactly they do it -- and why it might ...

How birds of different feathers flock together

March 7, 2013

(Phys.org) —New research from the Universities of Exeter and Cambridge reveals for the first time that, contrary to current models used to explain the movement of flocks, the differences between bird species and social ...

Recommended for you

Customizing 3-D printing

September 3, 2015

The technology behind 3-D printing is growing more and more common, but the ability to create designs for it is not. Any but the simplest designs require expertise with computer-aided design (CAD) applications, and even for ...

Team develops targeted drug delivery to lung

September 2, 2015

Researchers from Columbia Engineering and Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) have developed a new method that can target delivery of very small volumes of drugs into the lung. Their approach, in which micro-liters ...

Magnetic fields provide a new way to communicate wirelessly

September 1, 2015

Electrical engineers at the University of California, San Diego demonstrated a new wireless communication technique that works by sending magnetic signals through the human body. The new technology could offer a lower power ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.