Flapping Wings and the Aerodynamics of Birds

Nancy Anderson
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There’s been something of a revolution in aviation over the last hundred years or so, but the one question you can never get away from is this: What will aircraft look like in the near future?

Geoffrey Spedding and Joachim Huysen recently presented a paper and experimental data from a ground-up reinvention of the traditional aircraft body. Spedding and Huysen believe that the greatest advances to be made in commercial aviation will be in fuel efficiency, and for their part, that starts by minimizing aerodynamic drag. Their method? Makes planes look more lie birds, though it turns out they arrived at the birdlike low-drag design without specifically referencing any birds during the design process.

A Georgia Tech research team, on the other hand, turned their attention to the small-scale: Their work on wing and propulsion design for micro air vehicles lead them to investigate flexible wings providing lift and propulsion. Their tiny wings behave more like those of insects, rather than birds, and flap in simple, resonant harmonic motion. The researchers have created an integrated model incorporating fluid elements and the elastically deformable wing structure, and have managed to find that the wing flapping can be tuned either for lift or efficiency.

Now, who wants to build a birdlike aircraft with flapping wings? What could possibly go wrong? Incidentally, if you're interested in the history of aircraft design, you'll definitely enjoy going through the timeline at the NASA-curated U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission website.

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Mike Wrightly is mostly diesel fumes and duct tape; he grew up around heavy equipment, and holds a Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering.

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