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Concept: Gliding


Measuring the costs of soaring, gliding and flapping flight in raptors is challenging, but essential for understanding their ecology. Among raptors, vultures are scavengers that have evolved highly efficient soaring-gliding flight techniques to minimize energy costs to find unpredictable food resources. Using electrocardiogram, GPS and accelerometer bio-loggers, we report the heart rate (HR) of captive griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus and G. himalayensis) trained for freely-flying. HR increased three-fold at take-off (characterized by prolonged flapping flight) and landing (>300 beats-per-minute, (bpm)) compared to baseline levels (80-100 bpm). However, within 10 minutes after the initial flapping phase, HR in soaring/gliding flight dropped to values similar to baseline levels, i.e. slightly lower than theoretically expected. However, the extremely rapid decrease in HR was unexpected, when compared with other marine gliders, such as albatrosses. Weather conditions influenced flight performance and HR was noticeably higher during cloudy compared to sunny conditions when prolonged soaring flight is made easier by thermal ascending air currents. Soaring as a cheap locomotory mode is a crucial adaptation for vultures who spend so long on the wing for wide-ranging movements to find food.

Concepts: Flight, Landing, Vulture, Flying and gliding animals, Gyps, Griffon Vulture, Takeoff, Gliding


Birds and gliders exploit warm, rising atmospheric currents (thermals) to reach heights comparable to low-lying clouds with a reduced expenditure of energy. This strategy of flight (thermal soaring) is frequently used by migratory birds. Soaring provides a remarkable instance of complex decision making in biology and requires a long-term strategy to effectively use the ascending thermals. Furthermore, the problem is technologically relevant to extend the flying range of autonomous gliders. Thermal soaring is commonly observed in the atmospheric convective boundary layer on warm, sunny days. The formation of thermals unavoidably generates strong turbulent fluctuations, which constitute an essential element of soaring. Here, we approach soaring flight as a problem of learning to navigate complex, highly fluctuating turbulent environments. We simulate the atmospheric boundary layer by numerical models of turbulent convective flow and combine them with model-free, experience-based, reinforcement learning algorithms to train the gliders. For the learned policies in the regimes of moderate and strong turbulence levels, the glider adopts an increasingly conservative policy as turbulence levels increase, quantifying the degree of risk affordable in turbulent environments. Reinforcement learning uncovers those sensorimotor cues that permit effective control over soaring in turbulent environments.

Concepts: Aerodynamics, Machine learning, Reinforcement learning, Thermal, Planetary boundary layer, Glider, Gliding, Unpowered aircraft


Here, we analyse the energetics, performance and optimization of flight in a moving atmosphere. We begin by deriving a succinct expression describing all of the mechanical energy flows associated with gliding, dynamic soaring and thermal soaring, which we use to explore the optimization of gliding in an arbitrary wind. We use this optimization to revisit the classical theory of the glide polar, which we expand upon in two significant ways. First, we compare the predictions of the glide polar for different species under the various published models. Second, we derive a glide optimization chart that maps every combination of headwind and updraft speed to the unique combination of airspeed and inertial sink rate at which the aerodynamic cost of transport is expected to be minimized. With these theoretical tools in hand, we test their predictions using empirical data collected from a captive steppe eagle (Aquila nipalensis) carrying an inertial measurement unit, global positioning system, barometer and pitot tube. We show that the bird adjusts airspeed in relation to headwind speed as expected if it were seeking to minimize its aerodynamic cost of transport, but find only weak evidence to suggest that it adjusts airspeed similarly in response to updrafts during straight and interthermal glides.This article is part of the themed issue ‘Moving in a moving medium: new perspectives on flight’.

Concepts: Scientific method, Global Positioning System, Eagle, Aquila, Gliding, Pitot tube, Steppe Eagle, Hang gliding


Gliding flight - moving horizontally downward through the air without power - has evolved in a broad diversity of taxa and serves numerous ecologically relevant functions such as predator escape, expanding foraging locations, and finding mates, and has been suggested as an evolutionary pathway to powered flight. Historically, gliding has been conceptualized using the idealized conditions of equilibrium, in which the net aerodynamic force on the glider balances its weight. While this assumption is appealing for its simplicity, recent studies of glide trajectories have shown that equilibrium gliding is not the norm for most species. Furthermore, equilibrium theory neglects the aerodynamic differences between species, as well as how a glider can modify its glide path using control. To investigate non-equilibrium glide behavior, we developed a reduced-order model of gliding that accounts for self-similarity in the equations of motion, such that the lift and drag characteristics alone determine the glide trajectory. From analysis of velocity polar diagrams of horizontal and vertical velocity from several gliding species, we find that pitch angle, the angle between the horizontal and chord line, is a control parameter that can be exploited to modulate glide angle and glide speed. Varying pitch results in changing locations of equilibrium glide configurations in the velocity polar diagram that govern passive glide dynamics. Such analyses provide a new mechanism of interspecies comparison and tools to understand experimentally-measured kinematics data and theory. In addition, this analysis suggests that the lift and drag characteristics of aerial and aquatic autonomous gliders can be engineered to passively alter glide trajectories with minimal control effort.

Concepts: Aerodynamics, Force, Flight, Lift, Airfoil, Glider, Gliding, Glider aircraft