It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's…Yeah, It's a Plane.

By Eric Wolff | November 22, 2010 4:00 am

shouldairplaRarely in our visions of the future do people have to make long landings, or fly on commercial jet liners. Seems like they’ve always advanced past that.

Here in the present, we don’t seem to be making much headway in really crazy transportation breakthroughs — not much sign of beaming or stargates — but some scientists are considering some novel ways to improve air travel by copying our friends the birds.

OK, maybe “friends” is a little strong for describing our relationship to the last living dinosaurs, but nonetheless, with the ability to hover, stop on a dime, and fly with impressive energy efficiency, birds offer researchers a great deal of inspiration for improving aircraft.

At the 63rd Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics in Long Beach, Calif. Last weekend, Geoffrey Spedding of the University of Southern California and Joachim Huyssen of Northwestern University in South Africa presented research offering a more birdlike wing and tail design that could reduce drag and therefore improve efficiency.

In an effort to strip down flight to its essentials, the pair tested flight models using just a wing, a tailless tube-and-wing structure, and a tube-and-wing structure with a modified tail. They found that by minimizing the tail to reduce turbulence from the wings, they reduced drag greater than current designs.

bird-lander-02Back in June, a team from MIT lead by Russ Tedrake considered ways to create aircraft that could land on a perch, as birds do on a wire. The scientists envisioned the landing technique for unmanned drones, and not manned aircraft (no amount of putting a sat in an upright position could prepare passengers for coming to a sudden stop with the cabin pointed upward at a steep angle). Using a ground-based computer and cameras mounted on nearby walls, the team coerced a foam model to land on its tail.

So that’s nice and everything, but I feel like we’re getting on toward time for our next major transportation revolution. We’ve had cars and planes for a century now. When’s the next big thing coming?


Comments (6)

  1. Gahh. We’re being too conservative. Too simple. Why not go the whole hog and do ornithopters?

    But even then, we aren’t aiming high enough.

    Ballistics. That’s where the next step should come. London to Sydney in less than 3 hours – and two of those hours are for launch prep and landing. Loft up, quick suborbital jump, landing. Could all be fully automated as well. It might even be less polluting than a long-haul jet…

    So, Virgin Galactic may be getting there with SS1 and White Knight – but for two or three people? Why not two or three hundred people? Bring in the economies of scale and make it faster, better, cheaper.

    Go anywhere is less than 3 hours, can’t go anywhere in less than 2. So there’ll still be a market for short haul.

  2. Andy

    The sharks might not be to happy about the last living dinosaur bit… thankfully they can’t hold still long enough to read blogs.
    That being said, I too think that low earth orbit is probably the next big thing, unless someone perfects a scram jet, which might give LEO a run for it’s money.

  3. MT-LA

    Al Feersum: I really dont think ornithopters are the way to go. Yes, nature obviously likes flapping wings for propulsion, but I can’t imagine that a flapping wing is more efficient than a turning motor.
    Nature never implemented the wheel in biological locomotion. Does that mean that walking is more efficient than rolling? I dont think so.
    And as for ballistics: What? Maybe I’m getting lost on the lofting part. Are you proposing shooting a manned vehicle into LEO on a ballistic trajectory? The acceleration at “take-off” would be enormous!

  4. amphiox

    re #2, why would the sharks be unhappy?

    But I wonder which of the 9000+ species gets the title of “last” living dinosaur?

  5. Brian Too

    @3. MT-LA,

    I remember reading that low energy systems (I’m badly paraphrasing) favored low speed operations, and high energy systems favored high speed operations. It also had something to do with the low viscosity of air.

    The basic message was that there was a reason why birds flap their wings in cycles of low integers per second or minute. On the other hand, practical human flight has always had motors (read: propellers or turbines) that operated in the hundreds or thousands of RPM.

    This carried forward into the motion of the complete flying system. Nature achieves tens of km/hour. Humans achieve hundreds or thousands of km/hour. What is interesting is that neither ‘technology’ works in the others operating range very well. Even the exceptions are notable mainly for being exceptional.

  6. Georg

    Such designs
    were popular with sailplanes in the 20/30ties.
    But because America is so self-referential,
    such things never popular there are “sold”
    as being new.


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