The Albatross-The Master of Dynamic Soaring

The albatross is one of nature’s most interesting creatures. They seem to fly for hours and hours and yet they only flap their wings on rare occasions. The instinct and evolutionary advantage that permits the albatross to decrease the flapping needed to stay in flight is called Dynamic Soaring. The albatross is perhaps the most famous example among nature’s creatures to use and apply this flying technique.

In our planet, hot wind gusts are created above the surface of the oceans. As birds fly above the surface, these gusts usually hit against the birds, and it is actually unfavorable for flight. However, the albatross have turned these gusts into an advantage. As the hot air gusts hit the albatross, they perform a 180 flip and fly in the same direction of the gust. After they increase their speed relative to the ground they turn again in their original flight direction with a greater speed than what they had in the beginning. The albatross repeat this process countless times to save energy otherwise wasted in flapping.

The albatross was forced to find a way to fly efficiently because it is a bird that has to cover 1,000 km per day to find food for itself and for its chick. These food runs can last up to 10 days, which increases the importance and need of flap-less flight . This has also forced the albatross to develop other instincts and skills rare to other birds. One of these skills is the ability to sleep while flying; they developed this behavior because they spend most of their lives flying above the ocean and sleep is required to live for every creature. But the albatross’ main skill that sets them apart from other flying species is without a doubt, dynamic soaring.

Dynamic soaring by the albatross, has been so impressive for human beings that we are harnessing its effects, although on a minor scale. Owners of remote controlled gliders (no motors) take advantage of dynamic soaring. This flight technique is what makes beaches so popular among glider owners. It is not relaxation and resting that appeals to them; they go to the beach because of hot gusts of air.

On a more serious note, NASA has started to design unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that take advantage of dynamic soaring. The main inspiration for the design is as you probably guessed… the albatross. The main reason why the Albatross PAV (UAV) was designed is to use a UAV aircraft that permits high mobility and low fuel consumption, just like the albatross. The other idea that makes this design so appealing is that it will run on solar panels that power small turbines to keep the UAV afloat when dynamic soaring is not enough for flight.

The main reason humans cannot take advantage of this effect on commercial flights is that airplanes fly at a height of 30,000 feet, while the albatross flies above the surface of oceans and bays. The other reason is that if this technique is performed by an airplane, most passengers would feel scared and nauseated, because of the 180 degree turns. However, this does not mean that we cannot use this technique for other designs, just like NASA is doing right now. It is this kind of innovative engineering that is needed to overcome the problems our generation will face in the years to come.

To conclude, I would like to say that the albatross is a remarkable creature that takes advantage of its surroundings in order to survive. In fact, we have been inspired by their flying technique and started using it whether to build unmanned airplanes or just for recreational purposes like remote gliders. In a time where energy efficient designs are key, the albatross stands out as an inspiration for future designs of aircraft.

By Andres Zubillaga.

Works Cited

One Comment

Lorena Barba posted on September 30, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Great post, Andrés!

It looks like my TED-Ed lessons are quite useful 🙂
I’m glad you enjoyed this topic. Let’s say it once again: Protect the albatross!