Some birds have their own HUDs

This is an amazing discovery. It’s been known, of course, that some birds (and other animals) are capable of detecting the earth’s magnetic field. This is what gives them a sense of direction, and they seem to know exactly where they are going. Until now, exactly how this detection happened was not completely known, although it was guessed that vision was involved.

Here’s the latest:

This ‘compass’ sense must be associated with the eyeball, because the birds cannot detect magnetic fields in darkness.

But now Oxford University and National University of Singapore scientists have shown that birds may really ‘see’ the invisible force of magnetism, giving them a compass on top of their normal vision: rather like aircraft ‘head up displays’ which overlay crucial navigation information on a transparent screen in front of the pilot.

The ‘technology’, so to speak, involves a special molecule in the eye. When a photon of light enters the eye and hits the molecule, it causes an electromagnetic effect in the eye—and since this effect also depends on the surrounding magnetic field, the effect translates into a ‘map’ of the earth’s magnetic field. All this, right in the eye of the bird!

The next question, I guess, ought to be: is the absence of light the only reason that the birds can’t navigate at night? Would they do fine if there was artificial ambient light at night? What happens if they are fitted out with a ‘headlamp’ of sorts, that reflects light back into their retinas? Is there a minimum amount of light that would be the threshold? This is all very exciting.

In related news, a protein in the human retina has previously been found to possess magnetic properties. This is possibly remnants of the same system—which poses the question: did humans ever have the capacity to detect magnetic fields? Is this a rudimentary evolutionary leftover, or did we shed our sensing capabilities as we gave up our migratory habits and settled down to a life of agriculture?

Really—the more we find out about nature, the more amazing it all is. (Well, granted—the Earth has had a few million years to test and improve new technology, but you’ve got to admit, this is pretty cool.)

The Boeing 787

Boeing is in the process of launching (finally, after delays) its latest aircraft, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. This is the first new major jet launched since the Airbus A380, and of course, has me interested in many ways.

Of course, on a personal-professional level (if that term makes any sense, which I have a feeling it doesn’t—anyway, I work with composite materials, remember?) the B787 is mostly made out of composites. Mostly out of carbon-fiber laminates; some out of carbon fiber sandwiches—use of metal (titanium and aluminum) is minimal.

Second, I just love the wing design. The sweep and curve upward of the wings is just beautiful. Also, it is a vast improvement over the last generation of wing-tips, which looked as if from a design perspective they were a later ‘add-on’ to a previous, flat shape. Here, finally, is a smooth, elegant, downright beautiful wing shape!

I also found this link to the B787’s design highlights. It’s an informative page, do check it out. (For information about the composites being used, go to Visionary Design→Composites.)

From the link above, I learn (among other things):

  • There is a very futuristic HUD (Head-Up Display) in front of the pilots which combines what the pilot actually sees with other useful information that the pilot needs. I’ve seen things like these in Fighter Aircraft simulations, but is this the first time it’s being used commercially?
  • The B787 is not a very large aircraft! I had inherently assumed that the plane would be B747 or A380 scale (i.e. a pretty big plane), but it’s not—it can carry a maximum of about 300 passengers, compared to the B747’s ~400 and the A380’s 525 in three classes.
  • The internal air pressure of the aircraft will correspond to a lower altitude (6000ft, as compared to 8000ft in earlier aircraft), and will have higher moisture content—meaning a more comfortable flight!

Now, what remains is for the major airlines to buy these and put them into service.