Case Study

2012 – iMORPH

Birds have honed their ability to fly over millions of years of evolution. Now aircraft inspired by the “technology of nature” stand to reap enormous benefits, thanks to researchers at Blue Bear, who have designed, developed and flight tested a unique bird-like wing on a small Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) in a 6 month programme funded by MAST STC (through the UK MoD Centre for Defence Enterprise(CDE)).  For more details on either the MAST Programme or CDE please use the links provided with this release below.

One of the key things that birds do well is to radically change, or “morph”, the geometry of their wings in flight. This allows birds to handle gusts, take off and land gracefully, and quickly change the way they fly according to their current objective. This could be transiting an area, searching for food, or evading predators. Birds also use shape changes as part of their flight control strategy. Whilst birds are able to do all this effortlessly, man-made aircraft have traditionally been limited by their fixed wing geometries. Until now, that is.

“Taking inspiration from birds has been really enlightening,” said Blue Bear designer Mike Snook. “We have been able to take the bird flight research of the Animal Flight Group at Oxford University and incorporate this into a multi-disciplinary engineering solution that flies efficiently. Nature is highly optimised, with a beautiful simplicity that engineers find difficult to achieve. The challenge for us as designers is to absorb the lessons from nature, and then to design and build a product using modern engineering and manufacturing tools and methods. We are not replicating nature, but we are guided by it. Our wing has feathers, for example, and by using Additive Layer Manufacturing techniques we are even able to take on some of the structural lessons.”

The flight demonstration of the morphing wing has already shown big benefits in terms of improving the aircraft’s energy consumption over a broad range of speeds, its stability even in gusting winds, and an increase in the range of speeds at which it can fly in the first place. This means that aircraft which use this technology will be more efficient and versatile. For example, a UAV could be launched effortlessly with wings extended, dash out to an area of interest with wings tucked, and then loiter for much longer with wings extended. Morphing could also be used for control, obviating the need for separate control surfaces.

“We do about two thirds of what nature does with this wing,” said Snook. “The next steps in our work will aim to do the rest, with a particular focus on flight demonstrating bird-like flapping and landings.”

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