Super drones that can fly through storms could be on the horizon - inspired by the barn owl.

Birds have a unique suspension system that enables them to fly in gusty winds, according to new research.

The discovery could lead to the design of bio-inspired small aircraft, say British scientists.

It was made by filming Lily the barn owl - a trained falconry bird who is a veteran of many nature documentaries.

All the lights and cameras left her completely unfazed as she glided through a range of fan-generated vertical winds - the strongest of which was as fast as her.

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Corresponding author Dr Shane Windsor, an aerospace engineer at the University of Bristol, said: "Birds routinely fly in high winds close to buildings and terrain - often in gusts as fast as their flight speed.

"So the ability to cope with strong and sudden changes in wind is essential for their survival and to be able to do things like land safely and capture prey.

"We know birds cope amazingly well in conditions which challenge engineered air vehicles of a similar size but, until now, we didn't understand the mechanics behind it."

The study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B revealed bird wings act as a suspension system to cope with changing wind conditions.

Co corresponding author Professor Richard Bomphrey, of London's Royal Veterinary College, said: "We began with very gentle gusts in case Lily had any difficulties, but soon found that - even at the highest gust speeds we could make - Lily was unperturbed.

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"She flew straight through to get the food reward being held by her trainer, Lloyd Buck."

The experiment was carried out at the Structure and Motion Laboratory at the Royal Veterinary College.

It combined high-speed, video-based 3D surface reconstruction, CT (computed tomography) scans and a technique called CFD (computational fluid dynamics).

The analysis showed birds 'reject' gusts through a process known as 'morphing' - changing the shape and posture of their wings.

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Lead author Dr Jorn Cheney, of the Royal Veterinary College, said: "Lily flew through the bumpy gusts and consistently kept her head and torso amazingly stable over the trajectory, as if she was flying with a suspension system.

"When we analysed it, what surprised us was that the suspension-system effect wasn't just due to aerodynamics, but benefited from the mass in her wings.

"For reference, each of our upper limbs is about five per cent of our body weight. For a bird it's about double, and they use that mass to effectively absorb the gust."

The next step is to develop bio-inspired suspension systems for small-scale aircraft, said Dr Windsor.

Dr Cheney said: "They get bumped about in blustery conditions - while birds fly smoothly because of an inbuilt suspension system.

"Birds withstand sudden gusts by allowing their wings to pivot about the shoulder absorbing energy and leaving the head and body largely unaffected.

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"The mechanism is instantaneous and does not rely on commands from the brain. Birds' smoothed flight cannot be explained by aerodynamics alone.

"Instead, the mass of the wings enables much of the suspension-system effect. The same principles can work for small-scale aircraft, improving flight performance in real-world conditions."

Birds fly ahead of, into and through storms. Some migratory species intentionally fly into them.

Added co author Dr Jonathan Stevenson, of the University of Bristol: "Perhaps most exciting is the discovery that the very fastest part of the suspension effect is built into the mechanics of the wings, so birds don't actively need to do anything for it to work.

"The mechanics are very elegant. When you strike a ball at the sweet spot of a bat or racquet, your hand is not jarred because the force there cancels out. Anyone who plays a bat-and-ball sport knows how effortless this feels.

"A wing has a sweet spot, just like a bat. Our analysis suggests that the force of the gust acts near this sweet spot and this markedly reduces the disturbance to the body during the first fraction of a second.

"The process is automatic and buys just enough time for other clever stabilising processes to kick in."