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Science Technology

Birds Give a Lesson to Plane Designers 250

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.
    • Tell me about it. My brother suffered an awful tilt-a-whirl experience at an amusement park, and they had to clean him up what was left with tortilla chips. Not a pretty sight.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by mrxak ( 727974 )
        Well hey, let's use the same evolutionary principles that let birds fly so well. Design aircraft with random variables and see which ones can fly. The ones that can fly, keep randomizing stuff and see if they get better.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by somersault ( 912633 )
          We already have aircraft that operate on the same principal - being inherently unstable to allow greater maneuverability, and kept going in a straight line when necessary by a computer.

          "Have Blue was not inherently stable in flight and would tumble out of control. But fortunately, computers also rendered this fact irrelevant, because aircraft designers for several years had been designing planes, like the F-16 fighter, that were kept stable by computers that constantly adjusted their flight controls in t
        • Or, you could use your brain and design principles garnered from examining the flight mechanisms and physics involved. You could of course experimentally use different variables after that, but how are you going to know what to randomise otherwise? You are obviously going to have to manipulate airflows to provide lift and such, so you can knock any random variations that don't provide any lift out straight away (though if they generate negative lift, turn them upside down, hehe). The thing is that the 'vari
    • 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.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by tompaulco ( 629533 )
      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?
  • Missing tag. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ( 1195047 ) <philip,paradis&palegray,net> 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?
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Its the scale effect. The scale at which the physical laws act is the same. Its not possible to make a human size water strider.
    • 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?
      It might also have something to do with those flexible wings mentioned in the summary.

      Other than the pilot, the next big limit on a plane is "how much stress can the wings take before ripping off." Flexible/shape changing wings would change that significantly.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Swampash ( 1131503 )
      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.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by sssssss27 ( 1117705 )
        European or African Swallow?
      • by ozbird ( 127571 )
        The fact that one maneuvers faster than the other, it's just... inexplicable.

        I believe the meme you are looking for is: "inconceivable".
    • by Fred_A ( 10934 )

      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?

      Presumably the swallow folds or at least partly folds its wings when performing such manoeuvres. I suppose they'd like the planed to do the same (although getting materials to react fast enough at that scale would be challenging).

  • by ruggerboy ( 553525 ) on Friday February 08, 2008 @12:29AM (#22344920)
    a barn swallow, yes, but an African swallow...
  • Just now? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by katterjohn ( 726348 )
    Why haven't they been looking at this all along?
  • by djupedal ( 584558 ) on Friday February 08, 2008 @12:30AM (#22344928)
    Submarine designers look to fish for ideas on how to move in water.
  • Arrakis (Score:5, Funny)

    by milsoRgen ( 1016505 ) on Friday February 08, 2008 @12:30AM (#22344932) Homepage
    So does this mean we will soon of ornithopters to defend our spice from the evil Harkonnen?
  • Cool idea! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Friday February 08, 2008 @12:32AM (#22344946) Journal
    ...but wouldn't it be hard to keep your drink on the tray with the pane bouncing up and down constantly?

    (...and what if you're allergic to feathers? )


  • 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 cbc1920 ( 730236 )
      Read the article, not the commentary- he is working on 1-3" wings for ultra-light UAVs. Just imagine a mechanical hummingbird. The part of the article comparing them to manned jets is just PR fluff.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Psychotria ( 953670 )
      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 L
      • If you're including Roland in that list of smart people, you haven't been hanging around Slashdot that long, and definitely don't know Roland.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          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!
  • "...they can react almost instantaneously and adapt with their flexible wings." And they can hatch eggs and eat rocks to aid digestion.

    And the problem with making a machine similarly perform is.....?

    Didn't Da Vinci study birds? How is this news? Oh, wait...RP needs the ad revenue, of course.
  • 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?

  • Swallows (Score:5, Funny)

    by tsotha ( 720379 ) on Friday February 08, 2008 @12:49AM (#22345038)

    The roll rate of a barn swallow exceeds 5,000 degrees per second.
    Is that, uh, African or European?
  • by flydude18 ( 839328 ) on Friday February 08, 2008 @12:54AM (#22345086)
    They do make a point about the roll rate, but a Skyhawk is much more useful for migrating coconuts. An African swallow could carry one coconut at most, but they are non-migratory, so it is uncertain what sort of range they would have. European swallows are generally thought to be unable to carry even one coconut, unless two of them carried it together, but that increases the risk of mid-air collisions.

    A Skyhawk, on the other hand, could carry a large number of coconuts. However, unlike with the swallows (where the main issue is not the grip but the weight ratios), the Skyhawk would be limited by the number of coconuts that could be attached. The Skyhawk is an attack aircraft with a payload of close to 10,000 lbs, which would make for a lot of coconuts. But, the only reasonable place to attach large numbers of them without causing aerodynamic interference would be the wing pylons, where the bombs usually go. If they were to fit, these coconut packages could not be much bigger than the bombs. As there are only five hardpoints, I can't imagine there being room for more than about 50 coconuts.

    Still, this is a significant improvement over the swallows, and if you had to choose between the two, the Skyhawk would be a much better choice for migrating coconuts into temperate climes. Of course, something like a C-17 would be even better, but those have an even lower roll rate.
  • "researchers are looking to birds and bats for insights" I, for one, am shocked.
  • FTA: "A-4 Skyhawk plane is about 720 degrees per second. The roll rate of a barn swallow exceeds 5,000 degrees per second. "


    I'll bet that if I made a model of the A-4 the size and weight of a barn swallow, I could make it roll that fast, too.

  • 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.

    • by bigbird ( 40392 )
      Historically, aircraft that looked or worked like birds have been spectacularly unsuccessful. .

      You mean aircraft that have wings (sort of like birds do)?
      • by flewp ( 458359 )
        Show me a successful aircraft design that has wings that provide both thrust and provide lift.
  • on how to recycle old news.
  • by TheBlunderbuss ( 852707 ) on Friday February 08, 2008 @01:56AM (#22345426)
    I can't remember the source, but several years ago, a researcher in his twenties saw how owls' wingtips point upward on their downstroke. This cuts down on vorticies at the wingtips, making for a more efficient and quiet flight.
    Airplane designers then took that idea and applied it to most commercial jets you see today.
  • Size?? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by octogen ( 540500 )
    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 FlyingGuy ( 989135 ) < minus painter> on Friday February 08, 2008 @03:25AM (#22345768)

    This is really amusing, but least I laugh to hard allow me to enlighten some...

    The mighty Peregrine Falcon, THE fastest animal in the skies, bar none, have been clocked in dives exceeding 200mph, with radar. Now that is pretty damn fast for anything made of bone, muscle and sinew and covered in something as delicate as feathers. But one has to examine the actions of the animal when it accomplishes these seemingly impossible feats of speed.

    Fist of all, much like the famous ( or infamous depending on your POV, especially if you were a pilot in the early very underpowered versions ) F-14 Tomcat Naval Jet Fighter, it makes maximum use of variable wing geometry. When a Peregrine stoops ( the technical term for diving from altitude in the bird world ) its 39 to 43 inch wings fold in very tightly making the outline of the bird look pretty like a "W", leaving just enough airfoil hanging out to effect control. This reduces stress on the main wing spar ( their bones and joints ) by a huge margin thus allowing it to accomplish this feat without tearing its wings off.

    Now I don't have an actual measurement of their wing span in a full speed stoop, but from photo's I estimate that it reduces wing span by a good 75% or more. The area of the wing that would comprise the distance between a human elbow and the tips of our fingers goes parallel to the body and the upper wing ( the area from a human shoulder to the elbow ) then are pulled in close to the head, further reducing wing span.

    Transition from this "clean" configuration to a "Dirty" configuration after either missing or hitting its prey can be quite rapid and causes the bird to bleed off speed at a very high rate. A Falcon cannot make a "pylon" ( a turn in an airplane in which one rolls the airplane from straight and level flight by nearly 90 degrees and then applies maximum UP elevator ) turn, the force on the wings would quickly overcome the bone, tendon, muscle and joint strength. Now this is not to say the are not maneuverable in a stoop but as you would surmise their maneuverability is greatly reduced at speed. Another very interesting feature of the bird is its nostrils. Small bony tubercles in a falcon's nostrils guide the air and shock wave to prevent over pressuring the lungs and giving the bird the ability to breath while diving.

    so while looking to nature can be inspiring for aeronautical design there are very real limitations in duplicating the ability of a bird with mechanical devices. Another instance would be the original Wright Flyer. It did not have ailerons, it used what is called "Wing warping" which is what birds do, but it was found to be quite impractical since the amount of wing warping required to provide the same effectiveness as a bird required that the wings be so flexible to the point of losing to much strength. Now birds do Wing warping one better as they can not only warp their wings but they can dip a wing, decrease span, warp, move their tail in all axes, and do this all at the same time, providing maneuverability that airplane designers can only dream of.

    On whales and submarines. If it were not for the requirement that we a) Keep the water out of the people tank and b) be able to stay submerged for months on end, and c) carry weapons that are stand-off capable, perhaps a Blue Whale would be a decent model to study in submarine development, but not as much as one would think. One must remember that a whale of any kind is a completely articulated bit of construction. It can bend and twist in any direction thus altering its hydrodynamic profile at will. Careful study of its means of propulsion reveals that it is a "whole body" movement, not simply a movement of the flukes in an up and down motion. It was also discovered some time ago that whales overcome friction in the water by way of their blubber. Careful examination revealed that hydrodynamic pressure is relieved by the blubber and skin actualy undulating in concert with the pressure waves to facilitate their movement dow

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jc42 ( 318812 )
      I will leave you with an example to ponder next time you begin to wonder just how magnificent is the organic machine that we are. Consider the simple act of throwing a baseball over home plate. You know what the target is, you know its proximal distance and size. Your arm moves back, and then begins to move forward, the fingers grip the ball just so, and in the arc of your arm, suddenly the fingers release to ball to send it on its way to the target. If you are just an average Joe the ball gets very close t
  • It is interesting research, and no doubt useful; millions of years of in-the-field generic trial and error can't be dismissed.

    However, unless we're talking unmanned vehicles, I'd think a serious limitation in any design is the not-designed-for-flight blob of human goo sitting in the cockpit. You can strap pressure pants on to stop them from blacking out in higher G's than normal, but in general, our physiology is not tailored to the stresses of flight that birds can achieve daily. We're a ground-based ent
  • if mother nature was a patent house she would sue most of today's technology company's. we scientists have made so much "inventions" based on things found in nature (helicopters, synthetic oil, camera's, walking robots, and so on). I guess if she filed all patents when the patent system started she would be filthy rich, then again ...greed and the use of money are our inventions ;)
  • by pandrijeczko ( 588093 ) on Friday February 08, 2008 @08:24AM (#22347142)
    ...presumably those birds from which said lessons about flying were obtained did not include any ostriches?
  • by BorgCopyeditor ( 590345 ) on Friday February 08, 2008 @08:37AM (#22347212)

    Birds Give a Lesson to Plane Designers

    By crapping on their freshly washed cars?

It seems intuitively obvious to me, which means that it might be wrong. -- Chris Torek