Learning from Nature Fuels Aerospace Innovation

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Imagine a trans-Atlantic flight in the future: you’re sitting on seats whose fabrics resist dirt, the way lotus flowers remain clean and dry in a wet and dirty environment. The plane’s exterior is covered with tiny ridges, like sharkskin, which reduce drag. The plane is part of a scheduled V-formation, which saves fuel.

Icarus donned man-made wings in Greek mythology. Leonardo DaVinci drew flying machines. “In the 21st century, we’re not just trying to emulate bird-flight, but trying to understand how birds are so successful,” says Norman Wood, an expert on aerodynamics and flow control at Airbus.

Flying bee

Imitating nature has a name: biomimicry. It has three aspects, Dr. Wood explains.

First is nature as a mentor. We observe how living things succeed and understand what they’re doing. “It’s the art of the possible,” Dr. Wood says. “If we want aerospace vehicles to improve, we can say, ‘Insects can do it—so why can’t we?’”

Second is nature as a model. “We can ask, ‘How do insects fly—and can we transfer their approach into aerospace vehicles?” he says.

Third is nature as a measure. Simple calculations show that bees shouldn’t be able to fly and yet they are extremely successful. “Using the techniques bees use to achieve flight, we can measure how successful we could be ultimately—and how much further we could take a technology if we were to be as efficient as nature,” Dr. Wood says.

Nature by definition is successful,” he says. “So it’s an extremely good benchmark. We’re now moving into a deeper investigation, known as biomimicry, understanding the details of what nature can achieve and using that to fuel our innovation.”

Nature by definition is successful Tweet: “Nature by definition is successful” – @Airbus learns from nature to fuel innovation: http://ctt.ec/f425O+ via @Dassault3DS #biomimicry”

Take sharkskin, which is covered with rough, dermal denticles (hard, tooth-like scales) that decrease drag. Transferring that technology on to aircraft would cut fuel-consumption and thus reduce emissions.

Shark skin

Airbus has developed an aerospace surface with “riblets” that resemble shark skin.

Small patches of sharkskin-like material are currently undergoing tests on Airbus aircraft in commercial service in Europe, to see how it stands up to rain, hail, cleaning, ground contamination and other challenges.

Birds are an obvious model for aerospace biomimicry. Hawks survive thanks to their ability to execute extreme maneuvers in woodlands, or over cliffs, in order to catch their prey. They do it by maneuvering at or very near to their “maximum lift” condition. For aircraft, maximum lift is the point at which they can no longer stay in straight and level flight and stall, experiencing a sudden decline in lift.

Hawk

Pilots, aircraft owners and makers are legally required to maintain a safety margin from that condition occurring.

Many birds fly near maximum lift by using feathers on the top of their wings to detect when the airflow over the wings reaches that condition. The bird has evolved a nervous system that enables it to quickly modify its wing shape to manage the flow near maximum lift to maintain safe flight and maximum performance.

Airbus is looking at how to use surfaces on the wing to replicate the control demonstrated by birds.

Can we react quickly enough to define how we can make small changes to the wing and not go beyond a safe condition?” says Dr. Wood. “Our aspiration would be that we create an aircraft in the future that has its own nervous system. A bird doesn’t think, ‘oh, I’m at maximum lift and I have to do this.’ It makes the change automatically.”

The result could allow lower approach and takeoff speeds, as well as lighter wings, saving weight and therefore fuel.

Not all biomimicry involves new technology. Migrating birds fly in V-shaped formations partly because birds behind the leader can save a lot of energy, by flying in its wake.

Geese in flight

Transferring that to aerospace was assumed to require that aircraft fly close together, presenting traffic control, piloting and safety concerns. However, “as we get more understanding as to how and why birds do it, we find that the flapping of their wings destabilizes the wake behind them. So they have to fly close together to gain benefit.”

Aircraft get thrust from engines, not from flapping their wings, so the wake is not so chaotic. “We have the luxury of having fixed-wing aircraft, a structure that allows the benefit to persist, sometimes for many miles downstream, to trailing aircraft,” he says.

NASA recently demonstrated a 5% to 10% fuel saving by flying aircraft in formation up to a kilometer apart. Such a gap eliminates many of the issues of having commercial aircraft flying close together.

Over 400 commercial flights cross the North Atlantic in each direction every day. If even half were arranged into formations, “the impact on fuel-burn on those routes could be significant,” Dr. Wood says. “With no change to aircraft, we can achieve fuel savings. It’s one example where we can potentially exceed the benefits produced by nature.”

For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

World-Changing Dreamers

By Aurelien

IFWE

“IF WE ask the right questions, we can change the world”… Last summer, we asked what were YOUR World-Changing Dreams. The idea was pretty simple: sharing dreams with just a sentence beginning with the words “IF WE”.  Through a contest called the “IF WE Challenge”, we would collect those through Facebook, Twitter, 3ds.com, our blogs and third-party blogs. Oh, and because you could share your “IF WE” Dream through Twitter, it had to be not longer than 140 characters… pretty much a challenge in itself! :)

Anyway, we collected as many as 550 contributions from all over the world! We boiled them down to about 85 of them (with criteria of interest, feasibility, fit with sustainability…). Then we got back in touch with authors and asked them for more details about their ideas. Boiled down again to about 20 that we submitted to the final Jury. Then the Jury came up with our 3 final lucky winners (in our next blog post series, we’ll let you know more about each winner and their respective projects):

  1. Geoffrey Cooper, Canada: “IF WE designed a rolling tree planting robot, we could send them out to replant forests and restore deserted lands. Let’s make it happen!”
  2. Ismael Moreno Cendejas, Mexico: “IF WE design more exoskeletons we can help more people with different capacity”
  3. Andjelic Zoran, Serbia: “IF WE have enough 3D printers, we could make custom made prosthetic limbs for all victims of landmines and renew their faith in science”

Yet in the process of selecting the dreams, we found that others were also pretty cool so we came up with this short video illustrating 10 of them:

YouTube Preview Image

Thank you to Ozgur (Turkey), Hemanth (India), Christopher (France), Cristian (Cameroon), Josh (United States), Andjelic (Serbia), Marinescu (Romania), Noam (Israel), Swapnil (India), Goeffrey (Canada)… and thanks again to all participants of the “IF WE Challenge” in 2012!

And expect a new edition of the Challenge in 2013! :D

Do YOU have a World-Changing Dream?

By Aurelien

IF WESo this is a call to all day-dreamers out there  :D

“IF WE could harvest just one iceberg, we could provide half a million people with fresh water for a year.” Georges Mougin dreamed of harvesting icebergs to help address the water scarcity challenge, and with the power of 3DEXPERIENCE, he was able to prove that his dream could become real.

Watch this :

YouTube Preview Image

 

Now, do YOU have a world-changing dream?

Share your own world-changing dream with the world by coming up with a 140-character statement starting with the words “#IFWE” (e.g., “#IFWE harvest icebergs, just one could provide half a million people with fresh water for a year”) and enter it in the text box to the right.

We’re looking forward to your most innovative, ambitious and awesome “IF WE Dreams”! They will be rewarded, with prize values up to $15,000 to bring your dream to life! See more details about how to participate.

IF WE ask the right questions, we can change the world! And remember, the only limit is YOUR imagination!



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