These bird-sized goggles are, unfortunately, not a feathery fashion statement, nor is Obi the Parrot a fan of steampunk fiction. They are, in fact, safety equipment for experimental research.
Obi is a Pacific Parrotlet who works for Stanford University. His work routine involves flying and back and forth between two perches placed three feet apart, encouraged by a tasty seed treat at each end.
A team of engineers led by David Lentink are observing Obi’s flight to better understand how winged animals shape the surrounding air as they move through it.
The hope is that this research will inform the next generation of aircraft.
Airborne animals are far superior flyers than any man-made machine, both in agility and endurance. Several species of bird weighing only a few ounces can effortlessly fly around the planet while a plane has to refuel. Even the most advanced drone or helicopter is clumsy compared to birds and bats who can weave through buildings and between trees.
The Stanford team were able to capture Obi’s flight using a specialised environment. A converted wind tunnel containing a fine mist of water droplets, each one-hundredth the width of a human hair. This mist is lit by a latticework of lasers and picked up by a camera recording 1,000 frames a second.
As Obi flies through the air the water particles move with the vortices created by his passing and this is visible thanks to the lasers and camera. This explains the need for the Obi’s protective 3D-printed eyewear.
Lentink was astounded by the results of their experiment. According to accepted theories about a bird’s flight, he expected to see a series of whirlpool-like shapes created by Obi’s downbeats that would flow away from his wingtips as he moved forward.
The reality was quite different. “The classic picture is that flying animals create lots of beautiful, well-organized vortex loops that peacefully flow downstream,” Lentink told Seeker. “Seeing them break up violently within 2–3 wingbeats was entirely unexpected.”
These findings could ultimately lead to the development of a new generation of aircraft. Fingers crossed that they call the prototype the Obi-1.