Hypersonic drones, flying armored cars, space planes — these are the kinds of projects for which DARPA, or the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is best known. But a recent study by DARPA researchers focuses on something decidedly less high-tech: birds.

In an effort to develop new sensor technologies for the U.S. military, researchers from DARPA's Quantum Effects in Biological Environments (QuBE) program recently conducted a study investigating how birds navigate using their internal magnetic compasses. Specifically, these bird-watching scientists, led by Henrik Mouritsen of the University of Oldenburg in Germany, wanted to find out if the electromagnetic noise produced by today's electronics (i.e., cellphones, televisions and radios) interferes with the biological compasses of migratory birds.

Birds that migrate at night, such as the European robin, have an internal magnetic compass that helps them determine where to fly during the spring and fall migration seasons. Scientists have long debated whether the low-level, artificial electric and magnetic fields created by electronic devices affect this avian compass, as well as other biological processes of birds and other animals. [Humanoid Robots to Flying Cars: 10 Coolest DARPA Projects]


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