Should Airplanes Look Like Birds?

New research shows that by building planes to resemble birds, we could create aircraft that are more stable and use less fuel.


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]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.