Missiles, falcons and targets

I was intrigued to learn that the USAF is sponsoring research in Britain into the hunting habits of certain raptors.  The Economist reports:

Since 2012, in a project sponsored by the United States Air Force, Caroline Brighton and Graham Taylor of Oxford University have been flying peregrine falcons and Harris’s hawks over the Black Mountains of Monmouthshire to study how these birds chase their prey … The USAF hopes the birds may be able to teach it a trick or two about intercepting targets, both in the air (the speciality of peregrines) and on the ground (the speciality of Harris’s hawks).

. . .

What really intrigued the researchers’ air-force paymasters … was a peregrine’s responses if a live pheasant or duck turned up during a test. Then, the bird instantly lost interest in the lure and chased its new quarry using a tracking technique, dubbed optimal guidance, that is fitted only to the most advanced sorts of missiles. Optimal guidance employs optimal-control theory, a branch of maths also used in things like inventory control for manufacturing processes. That has led the air force’s experts to hope birds of prey may have other techniques to show off, perhaps including ones that human missile engineers have not yet thought of.

There’s more at the link.

This research becomes even more intriguing when one realizes that the peregrine falcon is the fastest member of the entire animal kingdom, reaching speeds of over 200 mph in its killing dive.  If it can solve such problems of calculation – entirely by instinct – while closing on its prey at such speeds, and if scientists can figure out how its brain does it, that might indeed be of considerable interest to aircraft and missile designers and engineers.

I just have trouble visualizing how an animal’s instinctive, non-intellectual behavior can be analyzed and studied in such a way as to yield results that can be ‘reverse-engineered’ into missiles.  However, clearly the USAF thinks something can be achieved.  I guess we’ll see.



  1. The US Air Force also contracts falcons and handlers to chase off birds at air bases that have a lot of bird strikes. I hope the research can be used to improve their Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) prevention program.

  2. Ditto Old NFO's comment…
    Here in Destin I marvel as I watch Pelicans dive headfirst into the water, them pop to the surface with a smile on their fish-filled beak.
    Let's work to imitate them.

  3. Problem with missile design, or any high-tech military equipment, is the vast gulf between the guys who actually do the work and the politicians who allocate the money. I suspect it might take a chain of a hundred people to bridge that chasm. We can't talk to the engineers because their work is secret, so what we get is a version of 'rubber baby buggy bumpers'.

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