When Getting Distracted Is Good For Discovery

May 5, 2014

Unmanned gliders could use the same mechanism as albatrosses to soar over the ocean.
Credit P. Richardson / Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Every life is full of twists and turns, dead ends, and fortuitous opportunities. Scientists are no exception.

Phil Richardson's current research is shedding light on how albatrosses can soar at incredibly high speeds, even into the wind. It's an incredibly complex problem that Richardson has boiled down to a greatly simplified explanation (it still takes a few sentences, but at least the complicated equations aren't necessary). His insights could guide development of autonomous aerial gliders capable of circling the globe and observing the ocean on the energy of winds and waves.

Richardson hasn't always been an aerodynamics buff, but this line of inquiry does have the feeling of a life coming full circle. Richardson grew up on a ranch north of San Francisco, spending summers on the island of Vinalhaven, off the coast of Maine. His stepfather, Polaroid co-founder George Wheelwright III, had been a flight navigator during World War II. Sailing and flying - even building radio controlled model airplanes - were part of Richardson's life from a very early age.

Trinity Church, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson.

When it came time to choose a career, though, Richardson at first steered toward architecture. He says it never occurred to him that model airplanes could be the basis of a "real job," and architecture was something of a family tradition. Richardson's father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all been architects. His great-grandfather, Henry Hobson Richardson, designed Trinity Church in Boston. So Richardson majored in civil engineering at University of California at Berkeley.

After graduation, Richardson signed up with U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, the precursor to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While in port in Woods Hole, Richardson had a conversation with his cousin, Columbus Iselin, former director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Iselin encouraged Richardson to look into graduate school in oceanography, and Richardson did, earning a Master's degree and Ph.D. from University of Rhode Island. Richardson then joined the faculty at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, launching a career studying deep ocean currents.

In 1997, Richardson was off the coast of South Africa conducting his usual research when he became captivated by the albatrosses soaring alongside the research ship - often overtaking the ship under full steam without even flapping their wings. Richardson was surprised to learn that there wasn't a clear explanation of albatrosses' soaring abilities. Complicated aerodynamics equations still didn't capture the full extent of it. But Richardson was busy with his oceanography, and so his curiosity was put on hold.

Albatrosses capitalize on differences in wind speed to gain energy.
Credit P. Richardson / Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

When Richardson retired in 2000, though, he made time to work on the albatross soaring problem. He devised a relatively simple model that explains how albatrosses use the difference in wind speed between the trough of large waves and the sky 30-45 feet above the sea surface to gain speed and energy. Basically, the birds bank up into the wind, then turn and swoop and down with the wind behind them, capitalizing on both gravity and the tailwind. As they dip into the trough of a wave, the wind drops and the birds' relative speed increases. They then use their energetic windfall to repeat the process, banking up into the wind and back down again.

Radio-controlled glider pilots have been using the same mechanism, known as dynamic soaring, to reach speeds close to 500 miles per hour. Richardson says he envisions high speed aerial gliders circling the world's ocean for scientific purposes.

There are a few obstacles, though. First of all, someone needs to build such a glider and test it. There's also the issue of what kind of data might be collected. Standard cameras, even GPS units, have trouble capturing any meaningful data when flying in loops and S-curves at 500 mph. Richardson says he'll keep championing his idea, but he's looking for some "young engineers" to tackle these challenges.