The albatross is one of the most efficient travelers in the animal world. One species, the wandering albatross, can fly nearly 500 miles in a single day, with just an occasional flap of its wings. The birds use their formidable wingspans, measuring up to 11 feet across, to catch and ride the wind.
Observers have noted for centuries that these feathered giants keep themselves aloft for hours, just above the ocean surface, by soaring and diving between contrasting currents of air, as if riding a sidewinding rollercoaster—a flight pattern known as dynamic soaring.
Now engineers at MIT have developed a new model to simulate dynamic soaring, and have used it to identify the optimal flight pattern that an albatross should take in order to harvest the most wind and energy. They found that as an albatross banks or turns to dive down and soar up, it should do so in shallow arcs, keeping almost to a straight, forward trajectory.
The new model, they say, will be useful in gauging how albatross flight patterns may change as wind patterns shift with changing climate. It also may inform the design of wind-propelled drones and gliders which, if programmed with energy-efficient trajectories for given wind conditions, could be used to perform long-duration, long-range monitoring missions in remote regions of the world.
“The wandering albatross lives in the Southern Ocean, which is…