A smoke visualization still of the actual vortex wake behind our glider during a free-flight high angle of attack landing (Image: Jason Dorfman MIT/CSAIL)
Most airplane landings are less than graceful. The aircraft slowly maneuvers into an approach pattern, begins a long descent, and then slams on the brakes as soon as it touches down, which barely seems to barely bring it to a rest a mile later. Birds, however, can switch from barreling forward at full speed to lightly touching down on a target as narrow as a telephone wire. MIT researchers have now given a foam glider this same ability using a new control system that could have important implications for robotic planes, greatly improving their maneuverability and potentially allowing them to recharge their batteries simply by alighting on power lines.