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Can drones fly as well as Luke Skywalker?

Researchers are modeling how birds such as the northern goshawk, shown here, zip through the forest without crashing into trees. Such knowledge could lead to drones that fly fast through cluttered environments.
Researchers are modeling how birds such as the northern goshawk, shown here, zip through the forest without crashing into trees. Such knowledge could lead to drones that fly fast through cluttered environments.Fish and Wildlife Service

Next-generation drones may fly like Luke Skywalker zipping through the Endor forest on a speeder bike, suggests new research which focuses on how birds such as northern goshawks determine their maximum speed limit.

These birds race after prey through the forest canopy without smacking into tree trunks.

They avoid this fate by observing a theoretical speed limit, according to scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

If researchers can figure out how birds intuit this speed limit, they could use the logic to program drones that race through dense urban cores and other cluttered environments.

State of the art

Most drones today fly at speeds slow enough to stop within the field of view of their sensors. 

"If I can only see up to five meters, I can only go up to a speed that allows me to stop within five meters, which is not very fast," Emilio Frazzoli, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said in a news release.

If the northern goshawks were limited by what they could see, they wouldn't fly nearly as fast as they do, he reckons.

Instead the birds likely gauge the density of trees and speed through the forest knowing that given a certain density they can always find an opening.

This is similar to skiers who dive into the trees to find powder. These daredevils maneuver through openings in the forest trusting that they'll keep appearing as they head down the slope. 

As long as the skiers obey their intuited speed limit, they should maintain enough control to avoid obstacles such as partially buried stumps.

Speed limit calculus

Frazzoli and his colleagues used a statistical model of a forest and some tricky math to determine the probability that a bird flying through it at a given speed would crash into a tree.

They found that for any given forest density, there's a critical speed above which there is no "infinite collision-free trajectory," MIT explains.

"If I fly slower than that critical speed, then there is a fair possibility that I will actually be able to fly forever, always avoiding the trees," Frazzoli said in the news release.

In a follow-up email, Frazzoli explained that this finding is non-trivial.

"While it is obvious that the faster one goes, the higher the probability of collision is, it is not obvious that there is a finite 'speed limit' that cannot be exceeded safely," he said.

The research established a theoretical speed limit for any given obstacle-filled environment. Going forward, Frazzoli and colleagues will compare their model results with real-world observations of birds.

They are also creating a video game in which people navigate through a simulated forest at high speeds in order to determine how close humans can come to the theoretical limit.

That sounds a lot like a group of researchers pushing to give real-world drones Luke Skywalker-like abilities.

Updated at 2:00 pm PT

More on drone technology:

A paper detailing the results has been accepted to the IEEE Conference on Robotics and Automation.

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.