Birds key to creating the ultimate flying machine

February 14, 2008

Birds key to creating the ultimate flying machine

By AOPA ePublishing staff

Man has long studied the ease at which birds fly through the air in hopes of being able to attain the same freedom. Just like Leonardo da Vinci did centuries ago, researchers are looking to our winged friends in hopes of unlocking the key to creating the ultimate flying machine.

While da Vinci’s sketches focused on human-powered flight using flapping wings, Wei Shyy, chair of the University of Michigan’s Aerospace Engineering Department, and a group of professors from around the world are starting on a smaller scale. They’re studying birds, insects, and bats in hopes of designing a flapping-wing aircraft with a wingspan smaller than a deck of playing cards.

Ultimately, the flapping-wing aircraft could hover and even perch to provide surveillance in hostile areas. The Air Force is funding the research project with grants totaling more than $1 million a year.

Flapping wings could delay stalls, enhance stability, and increase thrust, according to the University of Michigan news report.

“These days, if you want to design a flapping-wing vehicle, you could build one with trial and error, but in a controlled environment with no wind gusts,” Shyy told the university’s news service. “We are trying to figure out how to design a vehicle that can perform a mission in an uncertain environment. When the wind blows, how do they stay on course?”

If only birds could talk. For now, Shyy continues his research and photographs birds in flight to study their aerodynamics. Watch a short multimedia presentation from the University of Michigan that showcases Shyy’s dramatic photos of these amazing creatures in flight.

February 14, 2008