Air Force Ponders Bat-Planes

Nimble wings may inspire aircraft of the future.

By Alex Stone|Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A new Air Force–funded study seeks to use bats as models for compact air vehicles. To this end, Brown University engineer Kenneth Breuer and biologist Sharon Swartz shot high-resolution 3-D video of bats flying through a corridor filled with aerosolized particles to mark airflow patterns. (Click here to see another recent video analysis of bat flight.) Then the researchers measured the aerodynamic response of the creatures’ wings, taking into account variables like flight speed, attack angle, and bone structure.

Breuer and Swartz found that bats are some of the nimblest airborne animals around and, given their size, far more maneuverable than birds or insects. This is possible because a bat’s wings are thin, flexible membranes interwoven with dozens of highly articulated muscles and joints that move in concert to adjust both lift and drag in subtle ways. “We want to incorporate some of these ideas into engineered vehicles,” Breuer says. For example, there has long been interest in building aircraft with flapping wings because “flapping is good for hovering, avoiding obstacles, and managing turbulence.” Although this could take a while, “some of the ideas might find their way into test vehicles in the next 10 years,” he says.

The work could also help solve the mystery of how flying originated. “Flight has evolved independently in many different lineages,” says Breuer, “and the evolutionary question is, what contributed to bats developing their unique flight capabilities?”

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