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Hovering hummingbirds hold secrets of future flight

posted 6 Dec 2010, 11:01 by Mpelembe Admin   [ updated 6 Dec 2010, 11:04 ]
A robotic hummingbird wing may hold secrets to a new generation of aircraft, capable of hovering steadily even in high winds. Scientists from New Mexico State University say initial experiments have revealed promising clues about the the hummingbirds' unique abilities. Manoush Zomorodi reports.
LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES - Beating its wings up to 90 times per second, the hummingbird can dart and hover, even fly backwards. But how?

Scientist Balakumar Balasubramaniam, is trying to find out.

BALAKUMAR BALASUBRAMANIAM, LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY, SAYING:

"In a real bird, wings go actually up and down, but in a hummingbird after one stroke down the wing actually reverses back and it follows an "8" kind of pattern."

That "Figure 8" pattern creates vortexes that produce lift in both the down and upstrokes and keeps the bird steady, even in windy conditions.

To investigate this phenomenon the scientists placed a mechanical hummingbird inside a water channel to study wing flow.

Then they built a robotic wing and flapped it in a wind-tunnel.

There they could observe the formation of the vortexes with each beat.

BALAKUMAR BALASUBRAMANIAM, LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY, SAYING:

"What we have found so far, and these are very preliminary research, is that the flow structures do get modified in the presence of wind. What we are trying to find out is what that effect is on the lift forces which keep the bird up."

The researchers' goal is to develop algorithms that can reproduce - or even go beyond - what hummingbirds do, for very practical reasons.

BALAKUMAR BALASUBRAMANIAM, LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY, SAYING:

"There has been a lot of interest in building micro-air vehicles, really small, flapping wing vehicles which can fly out there, which can be deployed in swamps in times of disaster for example or for surveillance, or for environment monitoring applications."

The scientist says there's a greal deal more work to be done before the mysteries of this little bird are fully understood. But Balasubramaniam says he's confident the research will eventually take flight.

Manoush Zomorodi, Reuters

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