Newswise — The albatross soars with barely a flap by using a trick that may one day allow robotic aircraft to stay aloft for months on end. Since at least the 1920s scientists have wondered how the Wandering Albatross, with a 3-meter wingspan the world’s largest flying bird, can fly almost effortlessly for weeks on end, all over open waters without a bit of thermal updraft. They soon understood that the trick involved the bird’s characteristic maneuvers up and down, with the wingtips apparently even touching the waves in the lower curve, all in the face of more wind than most cruise passengers could withstand. But how exactly this was done remained a mystery—one that aeronautical engineers very much wanted to solve.

The hope is to apply the trick to air travel. Of course, any commercial pilot using such a roller-coaster soaring pattern would lose his license two minutes after landing, but things are quite different for a computer controlling an unmanned aerial vehicle.

In this month’s IEEE Spectrum, Johannes Traugott and Gottfried Sachs, both aeronautical engineers, and their colleague, biologist Anna Nesterova, write about their solution to the problem. A mathematical model, developed by Sachs, predicted the bird’s flying pattern, and an experiment, conducted by Traugott, confirmed that pattern in all its details. The experiment involved taping a GPS tracker to the back of an albatross.

A robotic plane could use this model of flight to fly in and out of the boundary layer beside any of the jet streams that encircle the earth, and surf the currents of the uttermost sky for months, perhaps even years. It could serve as a satellite substitute, one that could fly to wherever it was needed.

For a faxed copy of the article ("The Flight of the Albatross," by Johannes Traugott, Anna Nesterova, and Gottfried Sachs, IEEE Spectrum, July 2013) or to arrange an interview, contact: Nancy T. Hantman, 212-419-7561, [email protected].