Should airplanes look more like birds? That was a question posed at a meeting of engineers and scientists in Long Beach, California, yesterday. "Yes," was the answer, for a number of reasons—not the least of which was that it could make our planes more energy efficient.
In the way that academics are sometimes able to do, a pair of engineers set aside all commercial and economic concerns and asked themselves the question, what design would be most aerodynamic? Erasing from their memory the generic tube-and-wings format we have up in the sky today, the researchers experimented with a series of other designs (including a pure, bodiless wing), and concluded that an airplane with a small tail—like a bird—would minimize drag, improving fuel efficiency.
"The most important point is that we may be wasting large amounts of fossil fuel by flying in fundamentally sub-optimal aircraft designs," said one of the researchers, USC's Geoffrey Spedding, in a release. "At the very least, we can show that there exists an alternative design that is aerodynamically superior."
Spedding and his colleague's suggestion was one-upped by a presentation that envisioned aircraft resembling hummingbird. Hummingbirds are oddities among birds—their wings don't simply flap up and down, but oscillate in a sort of figure-eight pattern. They are able to maintain the necessary lift to hover by creating a whirling mass of air that sustains them.
At the Long Beach meeting, a team of academic, government, and commercial researchers announced that they had built a robotic hummingbird to more closely study how the animal performs its aviation feats. Soon, they plan to test the robotic hummingbird under high-wind conditions, with an eye towards creating a new "ornithopter"—a bird-inspired aircraft—that could hover in place for surveillane operations.
Together, the two bits of research bring us closer to two age-old human dreams—to live amicably with the earth, and to fly by flapping goofy mechanical wings.
[Image: Flickr user Tessa Farrell]