Optimization of avian perching manoeuvres

Perching at speed is among the most demanding flight behaviours that birds perform1,2 and is beyond the capability of most autonomous vehicles. Smaller birds may touch down by hovering3–8, but larger birds typically swoop up to perch1,2—presumably because the adverse scaling of their power margin prohibits hovering9 and because swooping upwards transfers kinetic to potential energy before collision1,2,10. Perching demands precise control of velocity and pose11–14, particularly in larger birds for which scale effects make collisions especially hazardous6,15. However, whereas cruising behaviours such as migration and commuting typically minimize the cost of transport or time of flight16, the optimization of such unsteady flight manoeuvres remains largely unexplored7,17. Here we show that the swooping trajectories of perching Harris’ hawks (Parabuteo unicinctus) minimize neither time nor energy alone, but rather minimize the distance flown after stalling. By combining motion capture data from 1,576 flights with flight dynamics modelling, we find that the birds’ choice of where to transition from powered dive to unpowered climb minimizes the distance over which high lift coefficients are required. Time and energy are therefore invested to provide the control authority needed to glide safely to the perch, rather than being minimized directly as in technical implementations of autonomous perching under nonlinear feedback control12 and deep reinforcement learning18,19. Naive birds learn this behaviour on the fly, so our findings suggest a heuristic principle that could guide reinforcement learning of autonomous perching. To perch safely, large birds minimize the distance flown after stalling when swooping up from a dive to a perch, but not the time or energy required.

» Publication Date: 29/06/2022

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This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement Nº 768737


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