Tag Archives: aerodynamics

Staying airborne: How bird wings are built for aerodynamic and efficient flight

Flight is a concept that has, until relatively recently in history, eluded humanity. However, birds have been successfully flying for approximately 130 million years, proving themselves to be a physical marvel of the natural world. And while our means of flight have historically been crude in design and performance, nature provides an elegant, efficient solution to get creatures off of the ground. Rüppell’s griffon vultures have been recorded flying as high as 37,000 ft, while some species of shorebirds have been recorded flying as far as from Alaska to New Zealand over eight days without stopping. But how exactly do birds seem to effortlessly overcome gravity so effectively? And perhaps more importantly, how might we apply these answers to improve manmade aircraft?

Morphology

Obviously, the exact aerodynamics and physical characteristics of birds will vary from species to species, but there are still underlying similarities that enable birds to fly. A bird’s wing consists of a shoulder, elbow, and wrist joint which establish the wing’s basic shape and allow a range of motion. Covering the wing are structures called primary, secondary, and coverts, which are all groups of feathers that provide lift and stabilize flight. Feathers consist of flexible fibers attached to a center shaft, called the rachis. Overtime, the rachis will become damaged from fatigue and large instances of stress. As a result, birds will molt and regrow their feathers on a regular basis. 

A diagram of the structure of a bird wing
Picture by marcosbseguren on Wikimedia Commons

Generally, a bird’s body will be adapted to either gliding flight, in which the wings flap very infrequently, or active flight, in which the wings flap nearly constantly. For gliding birds, such as the ocean dwelling albatross, the wings will extend far away from the body, and prioritize both wing and feather surface area over flexibility. Additionally, these wings will have a thick leading edge, and will be much straighter. However for fast, agile birds, such as falcons, the opposite is true. Consequently, agility is sacrificed for energy efficiency. In both cases, the rachis will change shape and rigidity, becoming larger and stiffer for gliding flight and smaller and more flexible for agile flight. 

Aerodynamics

One of the most unique aerodynamic characteristics of birds is that nearly all of their lift and thrust is exclusively generated by their wings, as opposed to aircraft that implement both wings and engines. This provides, among other things, near instantaneous control of both flight direction and speed. In other words, this gives birds an advantage when hunting, escaping from predators, and maneuvering through a landscape. 

To aid in the generation of thrust and lift during flight, birds will change their wing shape through a process called active morphing. During flight, the wing will be bent inwards and twisted up during the upstroke, and extended and straightened during the downstroke. As a result, this minimizes drag while maximizing thrust and, consequently, energy efficiency. This can aid in anything from traveling farther distances to hunting prey.

An osprey folding its wings in while catching a fish
Photo by Paul VanDerWerf on Wikimedia Commons

Applications

Initially, these principles may seem difficult to realistically utilize in aircraft. After all, we are limited by the materials available and the size that aircraft must reach. However, small steps could be taken to improve the energy efficiency and responsiveness of aircraft. For example, wing shape, material flexibility, surface finish, and moving joints could all be explored. In fact, research at MIT is currently being conducted on flexible wings made of scale-like modular structures. If experiments like this are successful, it could show that aircraft designs inspired by nature may be the future of the world of aeronautics.

Which is more stable, washing machines or birds? The answer might surprise you

What do birds and washing machines have in common? Shockingly, it’s not the ability to wash clothes. Rather, most birds and washing machines are great examples of vibration isolation systems.

Now that’s cool and all – but what is a vibration isolation system?

Better known as a mass-spring-damper system, vibration isolators are generally a mechanical or industrial mechanism that can reduce the amount of vibrational energy produced by a system. Vibration isolators are incredibly important; studies show “undesirable vibrations” can shorten a machine’s service life and even permanently damage the machine and those using it. Considering this, engineers are constantly improving upon current vibration control systems, and are now looking to birds for inspiration.

But why birds? Well, to understand this, let’s consider a bird as a simple mass-spring-damper system.

Avian vibration isolation system represented as mass-spring-damper-system
Simple approximation of avian vibration isolation system as mass-spring-damper system. Taken from the 2015 study: ‘The role of passive avian head stabilization in flapping flight.”

First, visualize vibrations as an oscillating force stemming from the bird’s body moving back-and-forth. Vibrational forces can be generated by the flapping of wings, unexpected gusts, and/or movement of legs. Now, if we continue up from the body to the neck, we can see where avian skeletal and muscular structure really begins to “show off its feathers.”

Characterized as a multi-layered structure, the avian neck contains many sections of “hollow” bones, connected by surrounding muscles. The structural units (muscles and bones) of the avian neck have properties of both springs and dampers, optimizing them for vibration isolation.

Simplified representation of multi-layered neck as spring-damper structure

For starters, we see the muscles largely act as springs. Springs have the unique ability to move a body with its vibrations. This behavior is present in the muscles connected to the bone segments, in that they are capable of instantaneously compressing, elongating and twisting in response to rapid changes in the body’s movement. This elastic response prevents not only the head, but the whole bird, from shaking when bombarded when vibrations from any form of movement.

Simplified visualization of multi-layered spring-damper structure. The transparent grey portion represents the hollow bone, which is connected by the black lines, or strong spring-like muscles. The empty space between each unit would consist of the softer, damper-like muscle. Taken from the 2021 study: “A novel dynamics stabilization and vibration isolation structure inspired by the role of avian neck.”

Alternatively, the muscles, primarily those not connected to bone, can act as dampers. Effective dampers are similarly identified by the ability to move with vibrations; however, they can dissipate some of the vibrational energy as heat, or store energy until relaxed. The interior muscles are capable of slowly deforming (changing shape) if exposed to steady vibrations, allowing for dissipation of excessive vibrational energy.

But hey, what about those bones?

The avian neck has nearly three times the number of bone sections than most mammals, on top of muscles entirely surrounding the neck. This drastically increases the bird’s flexibility, helping it maneuver through sharp positional changes, thereby further limiting the effect of vibrational forces.

Finally, what makes the avian vibration isolator truly superior is its passive activation. As engineers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University point out, manmade passive vibration isolators fall short because they require sensors and input energy to adjust for “shocks and random vibrations.” As previously explained, the multi-layered neck is well equipped to handle random oscillations, yet, more importantly, the bird’s neck muscles can passively change position to brace for incoming vibrations.

A recent study from Stanford University proved this concept by recording a whooper swan’s reaction to different strength gusts. They found that swan’s neck adjusted to protect the head, and that even when the flapping doubled, the movement of the head reduced by a quarter. Finally, it is important to note that passive activation is not limited to the sky; researchers have found that mainly terrestrial birds like chickens and pigeons have a similar neck structure and system for maintaining stability and clear vision.

Overall, continuing to study the avian vibration isolation system could prove very beneficial for many different applications. For a more in-depth look at the current work out, check-out the studies referenced throughout the article. Otherwise, enjoy watching this chicken work its body control magic!

Mercedes-Benz “Chicken” Magic Body Control Advertisement, highlighting the chicken’s amazing head stabilization ability.