Swedish researchers have found that common swifts can stay aloft for close to an incredible ten months, straight, no rest-stop breaks, perhaps sleeping while in flight. A Wall Street Journal article summarizing a paper in Current Biology makes the interesting comparison of human technology, specifically lightweight drones, to these little birds.
Micro air vehicles, or MAVs, can remain in the air for a matter of mere hours. “Their performance is ridiculous compared with these birds,” Lund University biologist Anders Hedenström told the reporter:
The birds typically spend two months a year at breeding sites in Sweden. The rest of the year, they fly to and from their overwintering sites in sub-Saharan Africa where they never touch down.
“They are extremely well adapted with crescent wings and a long streamlined body shape to minimize the drag,” said Anders Hedenström, a biologist at Sweden’s Lund University and co-author of the study. “They are the Formula One car of the bird world.”
The birds use a combination of flapping and gliding to cover long distances very efficiently, he said.
The new research answers a question asked by ornithologists in the 1960s who suggested the swifts could remain airborne for all of their non-breeding period but lacked the technology to check.
Figuring out just how swifts do it would be of both commercial and military interest, as the Journal points out. Biomimetics, as we had the occasion to mention just yesterday, is the science and art of seeking design inspiration from nature. It means solving engineering problems with an assist from — whether we call it that or not — intelligent design.