The flight of birds inspires the design of future aircraft •

For a long time, humans have looked at birds with a mixture of envy and awe. It was these feathered aviators who first inspired us to take to the skies in flying machines. Yet even now, much of how birds are able to move through the sky with such grace remains largely mysterious.

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

“Birds perform difficult maneuvers with ease and they are adaptable, so what exactly is most useful to implement in their flight in future aircraft?” said Professor Harvey.

After earning a Bachelor of Science in Engineering, Harvey focused her research on gulls as she pursued a Masters in Zoology. “Gulls are very common and easy to find, and they’re really impressive gliders,” she said.

Harvey’s professional interest in gulls continued as she completed her doctorate in aerospace engineering and did more research on birds.

In an article published earlier this year in Nature, Harvey and other scientists studied the flight dynamics of 22 bird species. Unlike most studies that focus on aerodynamics, the researchers also looked at other factors.

Some aircraft are designed to be stable, such as an airliner returning to steady flight after turbulence. Aircraft like fighter jets that need to maneuver quickly are best designed as unstable. Research shows that birds are capable of both unsteady and stable flight, unlike airplanes.

Harvey’s new research builds on that previous study. The team used 3D models of gulls and gull wings inside a wind tunnel to observe how the birds react to disturbances in flight. Research is important for understanding how gulls fly, but also for designing a bird-inspired aircraft.

Professor Harvey expressed one of the lingering questions raised by his research: “Analysis of flying qualities asks: if you built an airplane exactly like a seagull, would a human be able to fly it?”

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

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

By Zach Fitzner, Personal editor

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