Researchers use reinforcement learning to train gliders to soar like birds

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The words "fly like an eagle" are famously part of a song, but they may also be words that make some scientists scratch their heads. Especially when it comes to soaring birds like eagles, falcons and hawks, who seem to ascend to great heights over hills, canyons and mountain tops with ease. Scientists realize that upward currents of warm air assist the birds in their flight, but they don't know how the birds find and navigate these thermal plumes. To figure it out, researchers from the University of California San Diego used reinforcement learning to train gliders to autonomously navigate atmospheric thermals, soaring to heights of 700 meters--nearly 2,300 feet. The novel research results, published in the Sept. 19 issue of Nature, highlight the role of vertical wind accelerations and roll-wise torques as viable biological cues for soaring birds.