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Birds Give a Lesson to Plane Designers 250

Posted by Soulskill
from the it's-a-bird-it's-a-plane-no-really dept.
Roland Piquepaille points out a news release from the University of Michigan where researchers are looking to birds and bats for insights into aerospace engineering. Wei Shyy and his colleagues are learning from solutions developed by nature and applying them to the technology of flight. A presentation on this topic was also given at the 2005 TED conference. From the news release: "The roll rate of the aerobatic A-4 Skyhawk plane is about 720 degrees per second. The roll rate of a barn swallow exceeds 5,000 degrees per second. Select military aircraft can withstand gravitational forces of 8-10 G. Many birds routinely experience positive G-forces greater than 10 G and up to 14 G. Flapping flight is inherently unsteady, but that's why it works so well. Birds, bats and insects fly in a messy environment full of gusts traveling at speeds similar to their own. Yet they can react almost instantaneously and adapt with their flexible wings."
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Birds Give a Lesson to Plane Designers

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 08, 2008 @12:28AM (#22344908)
    Current aircraft performance is limited by what the occupants can survive. Try to roll a human at 5,000 degrees per second and things would get messy.
  • Missing tag. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by (1195047) <> on Friday February 08, 2008 @12:29AM (#22344916) Homepage Journal
    Where's the "ohnoitsroland" meta tag? :) Seriously, though...

    The roll rate of the aerobatic A-4 Skyhawk plane is about 720 degrees per second. The roll rate of a barn swallow exceeds 5,000 degrees per second.
    I'm no physics buff, but doesn't this have something to do with the greatly diminished surface area and related physical stresses on the swallow? Anyone with some aeronautics background care to help me out?
  • Just now? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by katterjohn (726348) on Friday February 08, 2008 @12:29AM (#22344922)
    Why haven't they been looking at this all along?
  • by backslashdot (95548) on Friday February 08, 2008 @12:35AM (#22344962)
    I hate commenting on another annoying stupid Roland article.

    Birds and insects have very low mass. As mass increases components have deal with more stress etc.

    Post another annoying stupid Roland article when birds flying at high speeds weigh as much as an aircraft (or even a human) and then we'll see how they handle things.

    Btw, I could have sworn i saw the "ohnoitsroland" tag and then it disappeared .. what's up with that?
  • by AlphaDrake (1104357) * on Friday February 08, 2008 @12:43AM (#22345002) Homepage

    Perhaps they can roll that fast, and take that many G's, because that's what they have done for thousands (if not millions?) of years. Their bodies have adapted to it, as they do it almost 24/7.

    And haven't we already used bernoulli's principle watching birds, and applied that to planes, getting us in the air in the first place. Has it really taken us this long to realize that we can learn how to fly better from watching the things that fly naturally every day?

  • by clarkkent09 (1104833) on Friday February 08, 2008 @12:49AM (#22345046)
    The planes they are talking about have "wingspans smaller than a deck of playing cards". You won't fit too many people on that.

    This is something people at universities mess about all the time. I've seen programs about something like this on the science channel or whatever years ago. They had little artificial insects or small birds with cameras on them flying around. Wasn't there news story about them being used by the police to film some demonstrations last year? For reasons known only to himself, Roland decided to pick this particular random news release and make it sound as if its some important new breakthrough when its nothing of the sort.
  • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Friday February 08, 2008 @01:12AM (#22345196)
    In addition, a bird's head is inline with its body, while pilots sit up and require g-suits to force blood back up into their heads. I wonder what forces the pilots could withstand if they piloted in a prone position, though I can't imagine that being very comfortable.
  • Re:Arrakis (Score:2, Insightful)

    by nunyabid (1126027) on Friday February 08, 2008 @01:13AM (#22345202)
    No. This means that we are the Harkonnen.
  • Re:Missing tag. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Swampash (1131503) on Friday February 08, 2008 @01:18AM (#22345232)
    Mass of an A4 Skyhawk at takeoff: ~11,000 kg
    Mass of a sparrow at takeoff: ~10g

    The fact that one maneuvers faster than the other, it's just... inexplicable.
  • by Animats (122034) on Friday February 08, 2008 @01:30AM (#22345298) Homepage

    Sometimes they come back.

    Roland is off in bogosity land, as usual. The wingspan of a barn swallow is about 0.3m. The wingspan of an A-4 Skyhawk is 8.1m, which is 27x larger. So, scaled for size, an A-4 Skyhawk actually has about 4x the roll rate of a sparrow.

    Historically, aircraft that looked or worked like birds have been spectacularly unsuccessful. Little ornithopter UAVs do work, but the ornithopter concept does not scale up well.

  • Re:Missing tag. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by sssssss27 (1117705) on Friday February 08, 2008 @01:46AM (#22345372)
    European or African Swallow?
  • by Psychotria (953670) on Friday February 08, 2008 @01:52AM (#22345396)
    I don't know much about Roland. But, from the article:

    Shyy is the Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson Collegiate Professor of Aerospace Engineering. Other authors of the book, "Aerodynamics of Low Reynolds Number Flyers" are: U-M research scientists Yongsheng Lian, Jian Tang and Dragos Viieru, and Hao Liu, professor of Biomechanical Engineering at Chiba University in Japan. Other collaborators on this research include professors Luis Bernal, Carlos Cesnik and Peretz Friedmann of the University of Michigan; Hao Liu of Chiba University in Japan; Peter Ifju, Rick Lind and Larry Ukeiley of University of Florida, and Sean Humbert of University of Maryland.

    If you're smarter than these people, perhaps you should apply for a job.
  • Size?? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by octogen (540500) <> on Friday February 08, 2008 @02:28AM (#22345570)
    Isn't an A-4 Skyhawk a bit bigger than a barn swallow?

    I mean, what about the maximum load that the material can withstand?

    An RC helicopter like a T-Rex 450 may run its main rotor (diameter of 70 cm == 28 inch) at 3000 rpm. Try that with a blackhawk helicopter, the wingtips of the main rotor blades would go faster than 9000 km/h (about 5600 mph), several times the speed of sound, and certainly more than the material could ever withstand...
  • by Jeppe Salvesen (101622) on Friday February 08, 2008 @03:43AM (#22345856)
    I've been hanging around Slashdot for a looong time. 10 years? But just not often enough to know who Roland is.

    Anyhow, comment on the story and not the submitter. Or maybe just shut the hell up? If people stop complaining about shitty stories, then the shitty stories will no longer be published since it will no longer generate the clicks used to complain about the shitty story!
  • Re:Missing tag. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pipatron (966506) <> on Friday February 08, 2008 @05:23AM (#22346302) Homepage

    Who programmed that navigation system into its miniature brain?

    No one.

    No gradual processes over time can work here.

    Why not?

    The FIRST plover setting out has to make it


    because plovers can't swim.


    no matter what the weather

    The weather is most probably quite similar since they travel at the same time each year.

    the amount of fuel a plover carries mandates that the individual bird would crash into the ocean about 800 miles short of its destination

    If it was longer, it would carry more fat, and vice versa.

    since they fly in flocks, in formation, only the lead bird has the full wind resistance load

    They learnt to fly in flocks long before they started to do crazy 2500 mile migrations.

    All this had to work the very first time.

    Again, no. The first flocks that set out at random either end up in the ocean, or find land. Those that find land will do this because they had enough food to do this. If each bird in the flock that found land had a random amount of fat, half of them would drop to the ocean, but half would arrive and breed. They would get kids that had genes that would make them eat a little bit more than the imaginary kids from the birds that died. Now repeat for millions of generations, and you'll end up with something quite optimized.

  • Re:Pissed Frost (Score:2, Insightful)

    by tenco (773732) on Friday February 08, 2008 @08:48AM (#22347268)
    What's with the sudden outbreak of 'nigger' trolls, anyway?

    Bad economic situation. Unable to criticize current economic system since it's taken as god-given. Scapegoat needed to blow off steam.

  • Re:Missing tag. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by prisoner-of-enigma (535770) on Friday February 08, 2008 @09:39AM (#22347614) Homepage
    There are some things in nature, that gradual evolution over vast amounts of time cannot deal with.

    I present an alternate hypothesis: millions of Plover's set out for some distant island. Some made it, millions perished. Those that made it had chicks which inherited the distinction. Lather, rinse, repeat until all surviving Plovers are also part of the same group that goes to the same island every year. Natural selection would tend to automatically "tune" the animal to have a specific amount of fat, as would flocking behavior, because natural selection tends to favor efficiency when possible. A fatter bird would require more food -- thus more foraging and greater chances of being eaten by a predator -- and more energy expended to carry that fat. A skinnier bird would not survive the trip.

    Ergo, natural selection easily explains this, gradually, and over time. You just have to get out of the box you've put your imagination into in order to see it.
  • Re:Hey, Nemo... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jc42 (318812) on Friday February 08, 2008 @10:35AM (#22348130) Homepage Journal
    Sub designers, guys/gals are supposed to have studied things like fish, birds, trees and insects for reasons why, and why not, long before they were hired to actually build things.

    True, but it might be noted that we made very little progress in flying until some people gave up on trying to mimic birds, and tried other approaches. The first actual "flight" by humans was in the early 1800s, with hotter-than-air balloons. Then around 1900, a few experimenters started to get the hang of wings, and figured out that what worked was to separate the lift generation from the propulsion. Nature never came up with this scheme, but it's technically easier (if you know how to make a rotary motor or a jet engine) than nature's scheme of using wings for both functions.

    Similarly, submarines look superficially like fish, but don't really work the same way. Fish use their fins for both steering and propulsion, while submarines use fins only for steering, with a propeller for propulsion. The similar shapes are only for streamlining, which does work the same for everything that needs it.

    Usually, nature's solutions to problems are good models. But in cases like fish and birds, it has turned out to work better to give up on them and work from first principles. We're only now starting to produce machines that fly and swim like birds and fish, and they are little more than toys. Our non-natural solutions have turned out to work better for our purposes than what nature found.

    We might also note that nature did discover a rotary motor, in the form of bacterial flagellae. We even have them in some of our cells. (Trivia question: Which cells are those?) But nature never figured out how to adapt them to larger, multi-cellular organisms. Maybe on some other planet, but not on this one. Nature also discovered jet propulsion, and uses it under water but not in the air. We know how to do both of these things on a larger scale, and we have used them to solve problems in ways that the evolutionary process hasn't found.
  • by UseTheSource (66510) on Friday February 08, 2008 @11:57AM (#22349324) Homepage Journal
    Using a computer controlled, fly-by-wire system to control an inherently unstable design was also explored in the Grumman X-29 [] program. That's the unusual looking forward-swept design based on an F-5 airframe that was test-flown in the 1980s.
  • by tompaulco (629533) on Friday February 08, 2008 @02:13PM (#22351466) Homepage Journal
    Also, who would have suspected that something with a 1/30th the wingspan and 1/50000th the mass would be able to spin 8 times faster?
  • by celtic_hackr (579828) on Friday February 08, 2008 @03:42PM (#22352796) Journal
    While you're right, this is old news, it doesn't mean it may not be an interesting story. /. frequently posts stories over and over again. It's still an interesting field of study where a lot can still be learned and wings improved.

    Recently, okay not too recently, wings were made that can bend into new shapes during flight, similar to actual bird wings. This has numerous benefits, and while you're never going to be able to scale a swallow's rolling rate for numerous reasons (e.g. human limitations, structural integrity, metal stress, shear forces, etc.), it doesn't mean we can't make improvement to existing structures and designs. After all take the engine out of any modern fighter and watch how aerodynamic that sucker is (NOT). At least the Flying Brick, err ... I mean Space Shuttle, could actually glide in to a landing (although I wouldn't want to be in it if it did). You'll never do that in a B1 Bomber. You lose the engine in a B1 there's only one fix ... eject and pray the G-forces don't kill you.

    Of course, this research will probably only be useful for sub-sonic flight.
  • Re:Hey, Nemo... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jc42 (318812) on Friday February 08, 2008 @05:25PM (#22354240) Homepage Journal
    Yeah, birds are good at flying. But we've only been at it for about a century, while they've been flying for around 150 million years. Give our engineers another thousand years or so, and we'll probably be a lot better at it.

    OTOH, as others have pointed out, what we want from our flying machines is a lot different from what birds want. We have relatively little interest in machines that can incubate eggs, land on tree branches, and communicate by singing. Birds have little interest in carrying hundreds of (or even one) human-size passengers. So our flight cababilities will probably never be very similar to any bird's.

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