Urban gull flight

Bird inspired flight path planning

Air flows in cities are highly complex, with areas of updraught and downdraught. It appears gulls are able to take advantage of the complex air flow to reduce the cost of their flight and have no trouble maintaining control whilst navigating through turbulent regions. By comparison Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) of a similar size and weight are restricted in endurance and range due to current battery technology and often face destabilisation in turbulence. Understanding how gulls optimise navigation in urban airscapes could provide insight for path planning in UAV technology.

In this project urban nesting Lesser Black-backed gulls have been fitted with state-of-the-art GPS tags from the University of Amsterdam that record the birds position up to every 3 seconds as well as recording the birds behaviour based on accerlation measurements. There are two main focuses of this project covering two major aspects of energetics in the form of engineering and ecology:

1. Bio-inspired path planning for Unmanned Air Vehicles in Urban Environments. Analysing the flight paths of urban gulls for energy expenditure and optimisation criteria by combining simplified CFD models of Bristol with an aerodynamic bird flight model. The optimisation criteria can be used to develop control schemes suitable in path planning for gull-sized UAVs in order to improve flight performance and avoid turbulence.

2. Foraging behaviour and flight costs of urban-nesting gulls. Over the last 40 years lesser black-back gull Larus fuscus populations have increased dramatically in many UK cities, establishing large urban nesting populations. Reasons behind this sudden increase are unclear and little is known about the ecology of these urban nesting populations. Lower flight costs and/or better living conditions such as fewer predators, higher temperature and human waste as a food source might be possibilities for this increase. Analysing foraging behaviour in combination with flight energetics of urban gulls could increase our understanding of why these gulls are living in urban areas.

Lab members

  • Cara Williamson
  • Anouk Spelt


  • Dr Emily Shepard, Swansea University
  • Dr Judy Shamoun-Baranes, University of Amsterdam
  • Mr Peter Rock, University of Bristol

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Lesser black-backed gull with GPS backpack and leg ring in flight
Computational fluid dynamics model of wind flow over buildings
Computational fluid dynamics model of wind flow over buildings
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