One element of Bioneers that I really appreciate is how they encourage us to ask questions. Instead of asking, “how can we make airplanes aerodynamic,” Bioneers would encourage us to ask “how does nature design aerodynamics.” It’s easier to look at something that has been done effectively for millions of years, than for us to try to create something new. There are no design recalls in nature. Sure, there are evolving improvements, but nature has a pretty good system worked out. Here’s a fun example:
Humpback whales have bumps on their bodies and fins, which makes them more aerodynamic. Researchers have replicated this design to try to improve the aerodynamics and efficiency of airplanes. Wind tunnels tests have revealed that the bumpy flippers are more aerodynamic than anything the aeronautics industry has created. “Bump-ridged flippers do not stall as quickly and produce more lift and less drag than comparably sized sleek flippers.”
The sleek flipper performance was similar to a typical airplane wing. But the tubercle flipper exhibited nearly 8 percent better lift properties, and withstood stall at a 40 percent steeper wind angle. The team was particularly surprised to discover that the flipper with tubercles produced as much as 32 percent lower drag than the sleek flipper.
Airplanes with similar bumps would have greater maneuverability, smoother lift, and would be more efficient overall. This design could also be applied to helicopters, small airplanes, and ship rudders.
“The idea they improved flipper aerodynamics was so counter to our current doctrine of fluid dynamics, no one had ever analyzed them,” researcher Frank Fish said.
Scientists who study nature’s designs have access to information that has been time-tested and proven effective. I look forward to more inspiring ideas at the Bioneers conference next weekend (10/19 – 10/21).