Future of Flight Design

Feb 20 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

I've spoken before about my own struggles of making engineering interesting to non-engineers and how life sciences can have more of an appeal to everyone in general. But in the reverse engineers often take inspiration from nature in creative ways.

In the past I talked on my own blog about this new aerospace design that seems to resemble a bird more than it resembles a plane.

With its body and wings it seems to resemble a seagull and the researchers who designed it are hoping the radical wing design will help reduce drag and therefore increase fuel efficiency. Long endurance is a big deal and the long wing design can be seen in other extremely long endurance planes. One example is NASA's somewhat well known Helios which uses a solar array to recharge its batteries. Unfortunately the aircraft was lost in its second endurance flight over Hawaii.

It had been working towards a 40 hour endurance flight in an innovative combination of solar panels and propellers. 40 hours is not a long time in long endurance UAVs but it is on the higher end. Perhaps more impressive the Helios set a world record for achieving an altitude of 93,000 ft+ in the highest flight of a non-rocket powered aircraft. Its more successful cousin, the Zephyr, achieved a record fourteen day flight in 2010.

The makers of Zephyr, QinetiQ, hope that its endurance will eventually be measured in months. I think it's interesting to consider the implications of an aircraft that could stay up for months perhaps monitoring weather patterns or traffic or possibly serving as a communication hub as an affordable alternative to a satellite or being a part of a military communications array.

Advances in using lifeforms for creative propulsion ideas is by no means limited to flight. Two of my favorites to come up lately have been very small creatures indeed. First, a researcher in California looked at water snails who use a path of slime to propel themselves over the surface of the water.

Rather than using a friction force to grab the water, or like small bugs simply being light weight enough to perch on top, the snail uses a mucus film that acts as a force being applied to the water. When this mucus is stretched or pressed it can propel the snail in a direction over the water. The snail still benefits from being a very low mass object that will naturally float to the top of the water so for now the applications, while interesting, would be small robotic biomimetic devices.

And for another incredibly small but flyable design, a DARPA initiative resulted in a pretty fascinating UAV. I love writing about DARPA's engineering innovations which are always out of this world. This one is something along those lines. DARPA funding allowed AeroVironment to expand its unmanned offerings with the hummingbird UAV.

The crazy thing is in flight it really looks like a hummingbird. Go watch the intriguing video here. The bird's eye view (or camera on the robot) is a little unclear and hard to get used to. This is not going to be the same kind of thing you would expect from a high definition heat sensing camera looking down at terrorist cells abroad. But it is a perhaps ingenious way to sneak cameras into places inconspicuously. Before everyone get concerned with Big Brother it's important to note it's likely illegal to send these flying around to spy on you (unless the government's using it, that made you feel better, right?)

But I can think of plenty of non-insidious reasons one might want one of these. If you're trying to watch a highly mobile species in the wild without being intrusive but need something that can follow the group inconspicuously this would certainly have a place there. Plus I just think the scientific insight of designing something that could mimic a hummingbird that closely will likely have greater implications for what we can do with rotorcraft. However I'm certainly going to think twice next time I see a hummingbird flying past me.

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