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Bird flight inspires the design of future aircraft

Long have humans gazed at birds with a mix of envy and awe. It was these feathered fliers that first inspired us to take to the air in flying machines. Still, even now, much of how birds are able to move across the skies with such grace remains largely mysterious. 

In a new study, engineers have explored how birds can maneuver so well in flight. Study lead author Christina Harvey is an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of California, Davis.

“Birds easily perform challenging maneuvers and they’re adaptable, so what exactly about their flight is most useful to implement in future aircraft?” said Professor Harvey. 

After earning a bachelors of science in engineering, Harvey focused her research on gulls as she pursued a master’s degree in zoology. “Gulls are very common and easy to find, and they’re really impressive gliders,” she said. 

Harvey’s professional interest in gulls has continued as she finished her PhD in aerospace engineering and carried out more research on the birds. 

In a paper published earlier this year in Nature, Harvey and other scientists looked at flight dynamics of 22 bird species. Unlike most studies that focus on aerodynamics, the researchers looked at other factors as well. 

Some airplanes are designed to be stable – like a jetliner that returns to steady flight after turbulence. Planes like fighter jets that must maneuver quickly are better being designed as unstable. The research shows that birds are capable of both unstable and stable flight, unlike planes. 

Harvey’s new research builds upon this previous study. The team used 3D models of gulls and gull wings inside a wind tunnel to look at how the birds respond to perturbations while in flight. The research is important in understanding how gulls fly, but also in how we might design an airplane modeled after birds. 

Professor Harvey expressed one of the lingering questions that is raised by her research: “The flight qualities analysis asks: if you built an aircraft exactly like a gull, would a human be able to fly it?”

Many other questions about bird flight and its application to engineering still remain as the researchers continue their studies. 

The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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