Dead birds get new life: New Mexico researchers develop taxidermy bird drones

April 17, 2023 - 6:38 PM
A view of a taxidermy bird drone for wildlife monitoring developed by researchers at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, New Mexico, U.S. March 22, 2023. (Reuters/Liliana Salgado)

Scientists in New Mexico are giving dead birds a new life with an unconventional approach to wildlife research.

A team at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro is taking birds that have been preserved through taxidermy and converting them into drones in order to study flight.

Dr. Mostafa Hassanalian, a mechanical engineering professor who is leading the project, had found that artificial, mechanical birds had not given the results he was looking for.

“We came up with this idea that we can use … dead birds and make them (into) a drone,” he said. “Everything is there … we do reverse engineering.”

Taxidermy bird drones – currently being tested in a purpose-built cage at the university – can be used to understand better the formation and flight patterns of flocks. That in turn can be applied to the aviation industry, said Hassanalian.

“If we learn how these birds manage … energy between themselves, we can apply (that) into the future aviation industry to save more energy and save more fuel,” he said.

Brenden Herkenhoff, a Ph.D. student at New Mexico Tech, focuses his research on coloration and flight efficiency.

While many think of a bird’s color as a way to attract mates or use camouflage, Herkenhoff is studying how color affects flight efficiency.

“We’ve done experiments and determined that for our fixed- wing aircraft, applying certain color can change the flight efficiency. And the same is true for birds, we believe,” he said.

The current taxidermy bird prototype flies for a maximum of only 20 minutes, so the next stage is to figure out how to make it fly longer and conduct tests in the wild among living birds, Hassanalian said.

—Reporting by Liliana Salgado in Socorro, New MexicoEditing by Rosalba O’Brien and Matthew Lewis