Aircraft Flight Will Be Revolutionized By Biomimicry

December 4, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

The science of Biomimicry is not new to the scientific world, but every now and then it is taken to a whole new level. While aircraft have long been roughly designed in imitation of birds, they has always had certain set characteristics that set them apart. It seems all that is about to change.

Mechanical engineering professor Shaker Meguid was inspired by nature when he started looking for new ways to develop aircraft wings. He is now hoping to take the concept of Biomimicry in aircraft to new heights by altering the planform of airplane wings so as to optimize the aircraft’s aerodynamics. Meguid explained: “When you observe eagles in flights, you would notice that when they are high in the sky, they soar with their wings fully extended. They are gliding, attempting to increase lift and reduce drag.” He later continues: “However, they fold their wings and go on a fast attack when they dive to catch a prey.” The professor studied a variety of birds and eventually settled on the common swift as his bird of choice to imitate when working on his new concept – a plane not limited by traditional fixed-wings. His new concept is called ‘Wing Morphing’.

Up until now, morphing capabilities have been very limited. Ailerons and flaps have allowed for a certain amount of morphing, helping to steer the airplane while it is in the air. But Meguid hopes to achieve more seamless changes and so increase efficiency with his new wing morphing techniques. He is currently investigating combinations of various advanced materials with a specially selected research team. The first material is shape memory alloy (SMA) which contracts when heated above a certain temperature. The second material is called ‘piezoelectrics’ which may shrink or extend when an electric field is applied to it. When the shape morphing truss structure is activated, the wing may bend and twist to a new shape that is more efficient for the task at hand. The idea is to use a combination of these materials to enable the entire wing to change shape, at the same reducing system complexity. The new concept has other benefits too – such as reducing noise during take-off, decreasing the amount of pollution created by the aircraft and lowering costs. The team is not just drawing pretty pictures either – they are actively experimenting with the concepts. The three-year project is currently focusing on developing morphing wings for UAVs, which are mainly used for surveillance. But who knows where future applications of this technology may lie if it is successful? The near future may well have land-based humans struggling to distinguish birds from planes!

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