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Innovating for the future

What do Velcro, Michael Phelps' sharkskin swimsuit and the world's largest passenger aircraft - the Airbus A380 - have in common? The answer rests in a growing field of scientific study through which modern engineers, scientists and architects are looking not at what we can extract from the natural world but what we can learn from it.

This is known as 'biomimicry' or biologically inspired engineering. Simply put, it's the study and imitation of nature's best ideas to help solve human challenges. It's why that now famous swimsuit was able to replicate a shark's ability to reduce friction and stay clean, properties that not only made Phelps even slicker in the water but also protect bacteria sensitive surfaces in hospitals.

A growing number of aeronautical innovations are inspired by an array of natural structures, organs and materials - and these tried and tested patterns of the natural world will continue to be a powerful source of inspiration in the future.

The Lotus Effect

The surface of a lotus leaf has evolved to keep it clean and dry by causing rainwater to roll off and take any dirt with it. Known as the "lotus effect", these properties have inspired coatings for cabin fittings, which shed water in beads, taking contaminants with them. This improves hygiene and reduces the amount of water needed. This in turn reduces the weight of the aircraft and, therefore, the amount of fuel burn and carbon emissions. This innovation is already used on the surfaces of Airbus cabin bathrooms today and in the future will be found on the fabric of seats and carpets. 

One of the teams in the final of last year's Fly Your Ideas competition has also been inspired to use the lotus technique on the outside of the aircraft.

Moveable wing surfaces

In the same way that sea birds sense gust loads in the air with their beaks and react by adjusting the shape of their wing feathers to suppress lift, probes in the nose of the new Airbus A350XWB detects gusts ahead of the wing and deploy moveable surfaces for more efficient flight. This help reduce fuel burn and, therefore, emissions.

Eagle inspired winglets

If the wings of large birds of prey like the Steppe Eagle were too long, their turning circle would be too big to fit inside the rising columns of warm air which they use to soar. The eagle's wings perfectly balance maximum lift with minimum length by curling feathers up at the tips until they are almost vertical. This provides a barrier against the vortex for highly efficient flight. If built to a conventional design, the A380's wingspan would have been three metres too long for the world's airports.  But thanks to small devices known as 'winglets,' which mimic the upward curl of the eagle's feathers, the A380's wings are 20cm inside airport limits but still provide enough lift for the world's largest passenger aircraft to fly efficiently - saving fuel, lowering emissions and reducing airport congestion.

The silent flight of the owl

The long-eared owl is a truly silent hunter. Over 20 million years, owls have evolved serrated feathers on their wings and downy feathers on their legs, which minimise aerodynamic noise. While modern aircraft already produce 75% less noise than those built 40 years ago, Airbus engineers are studying owls to further unlock the secrets of silent flight. Ideas include a retractable brush-like fringe to mimic the owls' trailing feathers and velvety coating on aircraft landing gear.

'Groovy' shark skin

Remember Michael Phelps' sharkskin swimsuit? Well the same principles could be applied to the exterior of an aircraft. The skin of a shark is covered by microscopic grooves that scientists have found actually reduces their drag through the water, therefore allowing the shark to conserve energy as they search for food. For over thirty years this 'groovy skin' concept has been investigated and tested by aerospace engineers and is eventually being adapted and applied to the construction of Airbus aircraft. Just as a shark can minimize the energy it expends in motion, these microscopic grooves can help to reduce the fuel burnt by a jet aircraft.

Butterfly Wings

Butterflies are some of the most beautiful and delicate creatures on the planet, which belies the fantastically intricate mechanisms in their wing structure, designed to achieve optimum efficiency in flight. Soft membrane and blood vessels (micro-capillaries) can stiffen or relax to allow the wing to adapt to every stage of flight. Airbus engineers have similarly developed aircraft wings that turn and twist in flight, but if this could be controlled then their efficiency could be enhanced, reducing the fuel burnt during flight. Engineers are researching the possibility of using small movable surfaces and active internal structural components as part of an aircraft wing to mimic the way micro-capillaries in a butterfly's wing make for more efficient flight in the future.   

When nature has solutions like this to offer, it's clear why we all have an interest in protecting the world around us.



Many thanks to the team at Wildscreen's ARKive project for the images representing biomimicry you see here. Discover thousands of photos of endangered species and future inspiration at www.arkive.org


Did you know?

"We surveyed over 10,000 people around the world who will be passengers in 2050 to ask what they want from the aviation industry in the future.

Their message was clear – we need to help as many people as possible share in the benefits that air transport brings, but we need to achieve this while looking after the environment."

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