Seagull wings could inspire smarter airplane design

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The natural architecture of the gulls’ wings could help improve aircraft design, scientists say.

Flexing a single elbow joint allows gulls to adapt the shape of their wings to gusty conditions, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada.

“Although we know that birds frequently change the shape of their wings, this is the first empirical evidence demonstrating how this wing morphing affects avian stability,” said Douglas Altshuler, lead author of the study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

“And in this case, the seagull’s wing design indicates an original and fairly straightforward avian-inspired articulation that can allow the aircraft to dynamically adapt to harsh conditions,” Altshuler said.

As wing speed and maximum gusts increase, gulls sacrifice stability for maneuverability. By changing the angle of their elbow joint, they go from an extended wing configuration to a flexed configuration, pulling the tips of their wings inward and backward. The flexed shape gives them more control.

To determine the stability of different wing shapes, the researchers prepared gull wings on the anatomical range of the elbow and measured their performance in a wind tunnel. They also observed gulls in the wild.

“The Wright brothers were not the first to design an aircraft capable of flight, but they were the first to successfully control and stabilize a powered aircraft in flight,” said UBC researcher Christina Harvey.

Likewise, it is not enough that birds simply produce sufficient lift and thrust. They must also control and stabilize their flight paths in order to be able to feed and migrate successfully in their natural habitat, said Harvey, now with the University of Michigan in the US.

To get a more complete picture of how birds maintain their stability while soaring, researchers want to study a wider range of wind disturbances – gulls often encounter large-scale unstable turbulence as they fly in the wake of buildings or convective air flows above open water.

Atmospheric turbulence under these conditions is probably greater than the wind tunnel turbulence used by the researchers in the study.

(This story was not edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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