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What Hummingbirds Can Teach Us About Flying

What Hummingbirds Can Teach Us About Flying


Try as we might – we cannot master the flight
of the hummingbird. Hey everyone this is Carin for DNews and today
we are talking about human attempts to replicate mother nature. Biomimicry is the term used
to describe technologies that we develop to try to be as awesome as the structures and
functions we observe in the animal kingdom. Things like slug slime and spider silk have
been mimicked in many scientific studies; however, today’s example comes courtesy
of the bird world. Hummingbirds move with awe-inspiring speed.
Their tiny wings can flap at such high frequencies that they are audible to human ears – hence
the name hummingbird. The fastest flappers are flapping up to 200 times per second. Hummingbirds
are also masters of the hover – maintaining their aerial positions with what seems to
be very little effort. Scientists have long been interested in mimicking the flight techniques
of hummingbirds, and our most efficient microhelicopters actually do a pretty respectable job. The
Prox Dynamics Black Hornet autonomous microhelicopter is the most sophisticated available – these
tiny drones are about the same size as hummingbirds and they are currently used in Afghanistan
by the English army. But how efficient are these autonomous helicopter
drones? A recent study led by David Lentink at Stanford university looked into that question.
The researchers analyzed the aerodynamic properties of hummingbird feathers from twelve different
species and compared them to the blades of the black hornets. Specifically mounted cameras
allowed the researchers to visualize airflow around the bird wings and helicopter blades
that were spun on an apparatus designed for this exact purpose. In addition, sensitive
load cells were used to measure both lift force and drag on the feathers at various
angles and speeds. In other words – how hard does a bird have to work in order to achieve
lift or to maintain its position in the air? Do the helicopter blades have to work harder? Actually, no. The news isn’t terrible, but
we’ve clearly got a ways to go. Lentink and his team found that microhelicopter blades
were able to hover with an efficiency that rivals that of an average hummingbird – which
is pretty darn impressive. However, hummingbirds with top flight wings such as those of the
Anna’s hummingbird, common on the west coast of North America, are able to increase efficiency
over the helicopters by a staggering 27%. The best engineers in the world remain outperformed
by the power of evolution! Overall, this work most definitely represents
a significant achievement in the study of aerodynamics….but there’s more work to
be done in order to create technologies that rival the movement patterns of hummingbirds.
I mean, think about it – this was just one aspect of hummingbird flight – hovering. What
about diving, navigating through complex environments or flying through wind gusts?? Not to mention
that hummingbirds actually flap their wings – this study looked at the movement of spinning.
If hummingbirds could actually move by spinning their wings like a helicopter they would only
utilize half as much energy as they currently do. When it comes to biomimicry, there are many
more secrets to be discovered from hummingbirds and countless other organisms about amazing
ways they carry out their day to day functions. Which animal do you think we should try to
mimic and why? Leave your answers in the comments below, and subscribe here for more DNews every
day of the week. See ya next time!

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