In order to design and create better flying robots, a team at Stanford University needed to see things our pitiful human eyes can’t–like, how exactly does a hummingbird hover? How does a swift dive? So they grabbed a high-speed camera and went in search of birds.

Birds are exceedingly fast-moving animals, especially the various species of hummingbird, moving far too fast for the human eye to see naturally. Luckily, our human brains and hands have managed to invent amazing high-speed cameras like the Phantom, with which we can capture fireworks, smash TVs, and watch puppies roll around all in crazy slow motion, at thousands of frames per second. The Stanford team aimed a Phantom at various birds to see how they fly, and came away with some surprising insights.

Hummingbirds, for example, appear to do a very fast, very small shake along their spines, sort of like a wet dog shaking off–except in mid-flight. This has never been seen before, but could give teams attempting to create flying robots new clues as to how nature deals with the challenge of flight.

Biomimicry, in which engineers and scientists look to nature for inspiration, has a long and storied history, and it’s especially useful for flying robots. Fixed-wing ‘bots, with propellers or jet engines, have difficulty adjusting to less-than-ideal conditions. Point a fan at most flying surveillance robots and you can blow them right out of the air. But natural bird flight is much more flexible and capable of things robots can’t do, like changing angles and directions at a moment’s notice, adjusting on the fly for wind conditions, and contorting to fit into smaller spaces. If we want better flying robots, why not look to the birds?

[via Stanford]