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May 3rd 2019

Hacking Aircraft Design With Biomimicry Technology

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Researchers in Sweden have successfully designed a camera that recreates how birds see color in their surroundings. According to a post on Science Daily, the Lund Vision Group developed a specialized camera that picks up not only red, blue and green light, but also ultraviolet. They found that seeing like a bird enhances definition in dense foliage. This research into biomimicry technology could be valuable for aircraft design, helping pilots and on-board navigational systems “see” better. It could also improve sensors and guidance systems for unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs).

See Like a Bird to Fly Through a Forest

Visual processing — making sense of the light information coming in through our eyes — takes place in specialized cells in the retina, including cone cells that process color. Humans have cones that let us see three colors: red, blue and green. The cone arrays in birds, however, gives them tetrachromatic vision; they see not only the three primaries but also light waves in the ultraviolet part of the visual spectrum.

Nature Communications describes how the Lund research group, with their knowledge of the cellular anatomy of the bird retina, built a special camera with multiple filters to re-create what different animals see according to the distribution of cone cells. They were then able to capture images within forest canopies to examine how photoreceptors captured the raw data.

Coupling computer processing with their multi- or hyperspectral viewing system, the research team discovered that birds see the top side of leaves as lighter than the undersides. As humans, we see a wall of green foliage since the green spectrum is the worst for definition. The added information from the UV spectrum lets birds see more detail, which presumably helps with navigation at speed through the forest canopy.

Biomimicry Technology in Flight

Aircraft design and UAV functionality already benefit from biomimicry technology for developing new wing structures that aid flight and maneuverability. Biomimicry could also help UAVs fly more efficiently. Additionally, seeing like a bird could help build better sensors for pilots in the air and on the ground. Using UV spectrum information to boost detail presents birds with a much better 3D map of their surroundings.

Biomimicry technology is already boosting sensor data. For example, thermal imaging common to many snakes is already available. Science News reports another potential research area: Migrating birds might be able to see magnetic fields that help them navigate in flight. A special protein in their eyes might act as a magnetoreceptor, giving the birds a visual heads-up display. Science Alert illustrates what this might look like as an overlay of the Earth’s magnetic field onto the bird’s field of view.

Upgrading Sensor Tech to Enhance Performance

Although LiveScience notes that one day laser surgery might improve our existing visual abilities beyond 20/10, human vision is, by nature, relatively restricted when compared with that of other animals. For example, eagles and birds of prey can see much further than the human eye. The compound eyes of many insects detect movement better. Furthermore, as reported in Phys.org, butterflies not only detect movement faster, they also see UV and polarized light. There are many available wavelengths and energy levels that humans cannot appreciate, but other animals can.

Taking into consideration that the reality we as humans see is quite limited could allow designers to make a pilot’s life much easier. Adopting biomimicry technology to be able to see the world through the eyes of an animal or insect could help develop better visual displays for piloting in difficult conditions.

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