Autonomous Glider Flies Like a Bird, Cruises Like a Boat

An albatross glider, designed by MIT engineers, skims the Charles River.

MIT engineers recently unveiled a robotic glider design that combines the flying and wind manipulation capabilities of an albatross with the aquatic maneuvering capabilities of a sailboat. The team started by working to mimic the iconic bird’s legendary ability to transfer its momentum from higher, faster layers of air by diving down to lower, slower layers. This ability allows it to save energy in traveling distances as long as 10,000 miles without landing.

This transfer of momentum allows the albatross to propel itself forward without having to flap its wings continuously. The team also realized that sailboats operate very similarly, but instead of layers of air they operate within layers of water moving at varying speeds.

This realization led their final design to comprise hybrid characteristics of both. The six-pound, autonomous glider features a three-meter wingspan in a nod to the bird that inspired it, as well as a tall, triangular sail and slender, wing-like keel. The result was a vessel that could travel at up to 23 mph with a breeze as light as six mph. This is up to 10 times faster than a traditional sailboat relying on the same wind.

Additionally, the design allows for leveraging more windy areas by staying in the air and then dipping into the water where the wind is less of an option. Ideally, these vessels could be used to monitor large ocean areas and collecting environmental data.


Image Credit: MIT News/

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