Hovering and intermittent flight in birds

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Two styles of bird locomotion, hovering and intermittent flight, have great potential to inform future development of autonomous flying vehicles. Hummingbirds are the smallest flying vertebrates, and they are the only birds that can sustain hovering. Their ability to hover is due to their small size, high wingbeat frequency, relatively large margin of mass-specific power available for flight and a suite of anatomical features that include proportionally massive major flight muscles (pectoralis and supracoracoideus) and wing anatomy that enables them to leave their wings extended yet turned over (supinated) during upstroke so that they can generate lift to support their weight. Hummingbirds generate three times more lift during downstroke compared with upstroke, with the disparity due to wing twist during upstroke. Much like insects, hummingbirds exploit unsteady mechanisms during hovering including delayed stall during wing translation that is manifest as a leading-edge vortex (LEV) on the wing and rotational circulation at the end of each half stroke. Intermittent flight is common in small- and medium-sized birds and consists of pauses during which the wings are flexed (bound) or extended (glide). Flap-bounding appears to be an energy-saving style when flying relatively fast, with the production of lift by the body and tail critical to this saving. Flap-gliding is thought to be less costly than continuous flapping during flight at most speeds. Some species are known to shift from flap-gliding at slow speeds to flap-bounding at fast speeds, but there is an upper size limit for the ability to bound (∼0.3 kg) and small birds with rounded wings do not use intermittent glides.

Original languageEnglish
Article number045004
JournalBioinspiration and Biomimetics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2010


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