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Headlines Published on 11 May 2007

Title Aerotechnology gets swift morphology

Birds on the wing have inspired humankind since time immemorial. Our fancy for flight has driven our imaginations – and our science – to obtain speeds and heights no bird could hope to match. We've outdone the birds but not outperformed their efficiency. New European collaborative research has turned to the unlikely swift for answers on how to improve in-flight performance of aircraft. Their findings were highlighted in a cover story of the international scientific journal Nature.

Masters of the air, swifts may soon be the technology behind super-agile aircraft © David Lentink
Masters of the air, swifts may soon be the technology behind super-agile aircraft
© David Lentink
This little fellow sets some remarkable standards. In its lifetime it can expect to cover 4.5 million kilometres, spending most of its life in the air, displaying stunning aeronautical feats. Some swifts mate and even sleep in flight.

Impressed with their aerial antics, scientists undertook a study on swift morphology to determine whether they could yield any benefits for the aeronautical industry. Already known for example, was that swifts could sweep back their wings for more precise and faster flights, or extend them fully for longer, slower flight durations.

The study revealed more precise information during wind-tunnel tests in which swifts were put to their limit. In winds of up to 108 km/h the performance of lift and drag were monitored for both extended and swept wing formation.

Ten Dutch and Swedish scientists along with students at Delft University are now seeking to develop tiny aircraft that mimic in-flight behaviour of swifts. Depending on the demands, swifts morph their wings on a regular basis to improve in-flight performance. It is hoped that the outcome of the research could make significant contributions towards improving the avionic industry in its efficiency.

‘Wing morphing’ represents the latest trend in aeronautical engineering. NASA incorporated design characteristics learned from observing birds into their aircraft. Small unmanned aircraft are also proving to be next-generation aids in surveillance, and the European research team hopes to use their swift research to gain a leg up on the competition.

More information:

  • Nature, Volume 446 Number 7139 pp 949-1116
  • Aeronautics on Europa

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