Drone engineers only wish they could make their machines as agile as birds, which maneuver around obstacles and stay airborne and on course even in the middle of gusty winds. Now, they might get their chance. Researchers at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, officially opened a new wind tunnel today, a 2-meter-long chamber that can blast gusts of up to 50 meters per second. The tunnel is the first of its kind able to create turbulence, using computer-controlled wind vanes. Other tunnels aim to create the calmest conditions possible so researchers can get a clearer picture of the effect of drag, lift, and other forces involved in flight. Some are simple enclosed chambers where wind is blown at different speeds, keeping animals in place as they fly. In a few, researchers can control temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure as well as wind speed. The new tunnel, which researchers call “a huge step forward,” provides a controlled environment where scientists can capture the details of bird and drone flight (as seen above) in both still and turbulent conditions with high-speed color video, and—one day soon—x-ray video. Given how fragile today’s drones are, engineers have a lot to learn.
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