Birds help Airbus to build quieter planes
S’inspirer des oiseaux pour améliorer le vol des avions.
Habituellement, quand on pense aux oiseaux et aux avions, on imagine les catastrophes que la rencontre entre les deux peut causer. En aéronautique, on parle même de risque aviaire. Un scientifique britannique salarié par le fabriquant européen Airbus préfère quant à lui se pencher sur le fonctionnement du vol des uns pour l’appliquer à celui des autres…
The habits and anatomy of birds are being used by boffins at Airbus to develop quieter and more fuel efficient planes. 2. The aviation giant, which makes and designs wings in Broughton, Flintshire, and Filton, Gloucestershire, employs Professor Norman Wood to unlock the mysteries of the natural world to help gain a commercial advantage. It is using so-called ‘biomimicry’ in the design of intelligent wings that react automatically to the environment, just as an eagle’s or a peregrine falcon’s do.
3.While birds do it without thinking, the idea is that a plane will do this with sensors that can detect changing conditions and trigger rapid responses in its wings.
4. The idea of copying birds goes back to the beginnings of aviation with Leonardo da Vinci. More recently, Otto Lilienthal – a 19th century pioneer with his brother Gustav – was an obsessive watcher of storks in their home town in Northern Germany.
5. They used their observations of stork wings to help build a glider. The father of British aerodynamics Frederick William (FW) Lanchester, studied the flight of herring gulls while on a sea crossing to the United States. He also based his aircraft fuselage design on rainbow trout. Today, wings for the A350 XWB passenger jet being produced in Airbus’s Broughton factory are a blend of science and nature.
6. Birds such as the peregrine falcon have inspired ‘morphing wings’ that change into the most aerodynamic shape, letting the plane fly 280 miles further using the same amount of fuel. Birds do this by using muscles to change the shape of their wings as they fly or glide, so they can make maximum use of currents and gusts of air – on an aircraft this is done with flaps and slats.
FULL OF IDEAS
7. The nose of the new A350 XWB contains probes that can detect gusts of wind, just as sea birds can sense gusts through their beaks and react by adjusting the shape of their wing feathers. Another idea inspired by birds is that of ‘winglets’ – tips at the end of wings that point upwards.
8. Eagles’ wings combine maximum lift with minimum length by curling up the feathers at
the tips until they are practically vertical. Winglets copy the upward curl of the feathers to help planes fly efficiently and also to keep the length of the wings within limits set by airports – particularly handy with very large planes such as an A380 jumbo jet.
9. A similar concept to winglets is the ‘sharklet’, used on A320 narrow-body planes. These are 8ft-high fins on the ends of wings that reduce drag and can be turned almost vertical to get the plane in the gate. They make the plane 4pc more efficient.
NATURE OR NURTURE
10. ‘Nature is a mentor,’ says Wood. ‘Evolution means that anything you now see has been selected and is a success, developed over millions of years. Of course, we need it faster.’
11. Airbus is studying owls in order to reduce noise in flight and on landing. This will involve adapting serrated wing feathers that owls have, which make them stealthy in flight, and the owl’s downy leg feathers, that enable the birds to descend almost noiselessly on their unsuspecting prey. The firm believes that copying this, possibly with a velvety coating on a landing gear could reduce plane noise on take-off and landing.
12. Another possible idea is that passenger jetliners might in future be able to fly in formation on long-haul flights.
13. Migrating geese or ducks save energy when they fly in formation because the leading bird generates air currents with its wings. The military already uses formation flying, but passenger aircraft don’t, due to safety concerns.
The nose of the new A350 XWB contains probes that can detect gusts of wind, just as sea birds can sense gusts through their beaks and react by adjusting the shape of their wing feathers.