Last week NASA unveiled its new ACT (Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge) wing design. This is an innovative and highly-flexible aircraft wing, inspired by the movement of the wings of birds.
But it’s not just futuristic aircraft that take inspiration from nature. The very first aviation designs, over 100 years ago, looked to nature before science. With birds and bats already highly evolved at taking flight, it made total sense to look closely at their design – and then work out how to emulate this.
And researchers, designers and vehicle manufacturers have since continued to be inspired by marine and terrestrial fauna to develop their ideas. It’s not just in the air either – land and water vehicles are equally inspired by their natural counterparts.
Here are some of our favourites:
AIRCRAFT WITH BEATING WINGS
The goal of all aviation engineers is to make flight more efficient – so their aircraft can fly further, faster and use less fuel in the process.
NASA has partnered with Flexsys and Air Force Research Laboratory to develop a revolutionary wing, with a ‘flapping’ motion, inspired by the wing movements of birds.
The space agency worked in partnership with tech company Flexsys, to create the highly-flexible design, which will go through a full range of positions during a flight. NASA say the new wing – which can be retrofitted to existing aircraft – will increase fuel efficiency by between 5% and 12%, and reduce noise on take-off and landing by up to 40%.
The new design is expected to have the biggest efficiency impact on small to medium-sized aircraft, such as business jets, rather than on large passenger airliners. So this is exciting news indeed for the future of business aviation.
Read more about the design process of a new private jet.
THE SKY WHALE BY OSCAR VIÑALS
The AWWA ‘Sky Whale’ is an enormous passenger aircraft concept, by Spanish designer and aviation enthusiast Oscar Viñals – with its shape inspired by the largest mammal on earth.
Three storeys high, with 755 seats and a wingspan of 88m (compared to 80m for an Airbus A380). Oscar Viñals claims the design is the ‘greenest aircraft imaginable’, incorporating environmentally-friendly technical solutions, to reduce drag, weight and fuel consumption.
The design also features advanced safety features, self-repairing wings and solar panels in the roof to charge onboard electronics.
Despite its size, the AWWA Sky Whale has rotatable engines that can tilt like a Harrier jump jet, enabling a near vertical take-off on shorter runways – so this will open up the number of airports that could accommodate it.
Some doubt the design could translate into reality. Aircraft MIT professor Mark Drela believes the Sky Whale would be too big to be able to fly.
But Oscar Viñals is not deterred and is now working on another nature-inspired aircraft concept: The Progress Eagle. This design features ultra-lightweight materials and uses solar energy and turbines to generate electricity during flight.
FLYING SPIES: THE BAT & THE SWIFT
Smaller flying animals have inspired researchers to create small, unmanned monitoring devices.
RoboSwift is inspired by the Swift. The small bird can fold its wings back to control its speed and its stability in the air.
The device has three cameras, one facing the ground. The cameras can be used to observe swifts in their natural environment and the images can be connected to virtual reality helmets.
COM-BAT, which resembles a bat, flies on solar energy and has a camera on the front. More discreet than a conventional drone or UAV, its purpose is to gather information for the US Army.
Find out more: How are drones regulated?
ANIMAL-INSPIRED GROUND TRANSPORT
Animals have not only inspired the aircraft designers.
Japan is well known for the efficiency of its trains. The Shinkansen is the high speed train system, and its 700 series design was directly inspired by the Kingfisher.
Japanese trains can reach 322 km/h. This high speed is a problem at tunnel exits where the compressed air pressure causes a big ‘boom’ sound.
To address this problem, engineers looked to the technique of Kingfisher, which can dive at high speed into water, yet emerge with no splash.
By equipping their trains with a beak-shaped nose, similar to the kingfisher, the researchers were able to alter the air pressure at the exit of the tunnels, and reduce noise.
The McLaren P1 is an example of a car whose design is inspired by a large sea fish: The sailfish. The turbo swordfish can accelerate very rapidly over short distances, with its scales and skin designed to optimise speed and reduce drag. The designers closely observed the characteristics of the fish to increase the aerodynamics of the P1.
And a stuffed sailfish now takes pride of place on the wall of the McLaren research offices.