Lonely Planet Writer

Scientists are using the flight of the bumblebee to cut plane flying times

Scientists used the flight paths of bees and cuckoos to develop technology that will cut flying times on commercial airplanes. The cutting-edge research by Polish and Colombian scientists found that when it came to finding the perfect route – millions of years of evolution had given nature a clear head start.

Scientists cut flight times with bee research
Scientists have discovered a way to cut flight times by studying bees. Photo by: THOMAS WARNACK/AFP/Getty Images

Over three years, they developed software that mimicked the behaviour of bees and cuckoos and how they decide where to go.One part of it used principles from how a swarm of bee moves, constantly absorbing knowledge of where to move from others in the swarm.

The second part imitated the behaviour of the cuckoo, a bird which lays its eggs in other birds’ nest, and which will travel long and straight before “violent” turns of up to ninety degrees.

The aim of the research was to try reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cut noise pollution and decrease operating costs for airlines. They tested it on the Airbus A320 – one of the most popular short-haul aircraft in service – which serves routes of on average 350 kilometres.

The simulations found that the software could cut the distance on the average journey by 11 kilometres, and operating costs by just over 1%. Although that might not sound huge, it would over the course of a year mount up considerably and help cut costs for passengers.

Bee and cuckoo flight patterns were analysed
Scientists studied the flight path of cuckoos during their research. Photo by: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

“Profit at a level not much larger than one percent does not look particularly great,” said Dr Ramón Fernando Colmenares-Quintero of the research team. “Our simulations show, however, that in the case of a single but often used aircraft, the savings over a year can reach even hundreds of thousands of dollars. And yet we are only just beginning to expand our software and it is not yet fully optimised. So, in the future, we can expect slightly higher savings that those currently forecast … but we should not expect miracles.”

The research was a joint project between scientists and engineers from the Polish Academy of Sciences and Universidad Cooperativa de Colombia.