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What Are Some Special Flight Properties Inspired by Nature?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

Nature has been a source of inspiration for man for countless years, and no other goal drove man quite like the desire to fly. Birds are the clearest example of nature perfecting the art of flying, but it isn’t the only one. Other creatures glide through the air or make uses of fascinating principles to achieve their flight in novel ways. Let’s look at some special flight properties that we don’t normally look at from the organic lifeforms around us.

Earwig Wings

Besides avians, insects are the other major field of flight that nature developed. One of them that you may not have realized that flies is the earwig. I’ll pause to let that sink in. Yes, the little earwig can indeed fly, and its wings hold a surprising record: They have the highest wing size to compacted size of the insect world at 18-to-1. When researchers at ETH Zurich and Purdue University tried to replicate the wing, they found that even though folding does occur, it’s beyond the realm of origami folding due to the complexity and composite nature of the design. Instead, the folding is a result of “meta-stable designs that, with a small input of energy, rapidly flip between folded and unfolded states.” As a bonus, the wing design is what we know as bi-stable, meaning that during flight it can retain its shape but when done the wing will collapse back onto itself without the need for the insect to use its muscles. Another interesting property has to do with the junctions connecting segments. If reflectional symmetry is present then the joint folds normally but if not symmetrical then rotation occurred during the folding process. Could this someday lead to more efficient parachute packing? Better gliders? (Timmer)

The wing folded up...

The wing folded up...

...and then released.

...and then released.

Butterfly Flight

On the topic on insects, butterflies are one of the most…non-linear flyers known. They fly with a seeming random inclination, which is a result of them avoiding becoming the meal of some predator. To gain insight into this flying, Yueh-Hann John Fei and Jing-Tang Yang (National Taiwan University) took 14 leaf butterflies and recorded their flight patterns inside a transparent chamber. They found that the body of the butterfly is rotating longitudinally and width-wise and depending on where can cause a leap vertically or horizontally. And depending on how the butterfly pivoted, it could maximize its flap to avoid many of the downward forces associated with flying. Perhaps we can learn from this and improve current flying techniques (Smith).

Bumblebee Dynamics

Their buzz is unmistakable, but when you look at a bumblebee its flight seems puzzling. For most insects, their flight is generated via an almost spring-like process, where any stretch of the flight muscles causes them to snap back together and repeat, essentially acting as a sinusoidal wave. But what starts the process? Researchers at the Japan Synchrotron Radiation Research Institute came up with a clever way to find out. They glued a bumblebee to a rig and let it fly, during which X-rays were sent through it. The frequency was chosen for it to be scattered by the firing of muscles inside the bee, recording the changes at 5,000 frames a second. They found a surprising connection to animal life: The muscles expand and contract because of interactions between actin and myosin at reactive sites, just like vertebrates! Who knew that we would have something in common with those little insects (Ball)?

Dandelions Float On

Now, let’s look at those weeds we use to fulfill our dearest wishes with a breath of wind: Dandelions. How do these little seeds manage to drift up to a mile away from their host plant? Turns out, those little fluffs on the seed, called pappus, have a high-drag vertically. This extends the time to fall to the ground. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland looked at the falling motion inside a wind tunnel filled with the seeds. Using smoke, lasers, and high-speed cameras, they found that a vortex ring forms that the pappus maximizes, further increasing the drag. It’s essentially an air bubble around the top of the seed formed by the movement of air through the pappus. And get this: The drag produced by this ring is 4 times more efficient than that generated by standard parachutes. Awesome! (Choi, Kelly)

Works Cited

Ball, Philip. “Flight of the bumblebee decoded.” Nature.com. Springer Nature, 22 Aug. 2013. Web. 18 Feb. 2019.

Choi, Charles Q. “How Dandelion Seeds Stay Afloat for So Long.” Cosmosmagazine.com. Cosmos. Web. 18 Feb. 2019.

Kelly, Catriona. “Dandelion seeds reveal newly discovered form of natural flight.” Innovations-report.com. Innovations-Report, 18 Oct. 2018. Web. 18 Feb. 2019.

Smith, Belinda. “How butterflies control their twisty-turny flight.” Cosmosmagazine.com. Cosmos. Web. 18 Feb. 2019.

Timmer, John. “Earwig’s wing inspires compact designs that fold themselves.” Arstechnica.com. Conte Nast., 23 Mar. 2018. Web. 18 Feb. 2019.

© 2020 Leonard Kelley

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