'Hairier' flights might soon help you reach your destination quicker, as scientists prepare to cover aircrafts in aerodynamic ‘skin’.
Inspired by the flight of the peregrine falcon, researchers at the University of London, in collaboration with BAE Systems and Royal Academy of Engineering, are developing polymer sensors resembling tiny hairs to reduce drag around an aircraft, cutting journey times and saving fuel.
Made of flexible 3D-printed optical fibres, "the aerodynamic skin gives a direct measure and image of the airflow"
for "better control" of the flight, said Christoph Bruecker, an aerodynamics expert who is leading the research.
"In flow, the hairs bend and this signal is detected optically. We are the first to apply this all-optical technique as an aerodynamic skin."
Using optical fibres for the sensors reduces risk of electromagnetic interference - which can compromise an aircraft’s electronic system – while also sidestepping significant weight gain to the plane.
As the fastest bird in the world, the peregrine falcon maintains its high speed even in the strongest winds and remains in control. Densely packed hairs on its wings help reduce drag for faster flight, as does the ability to lift the feathers for a smoother landing. The researchers plan to achieve the latter by adding bendable flaps to aircrafts for slow speed landings at sharper angles.
“The aim is not to copy nature, but to be inspired by it and understand the physical principles underlying natural flight,” said Bruecker.
The sensory hairs could also be used closer to the ground. The aerodynamic technology reduces noise pollution and could be used on wind turbines for more fluid and silent operations. Implementing the sensors inside pipelines would allow measurement of real-time flow, added Bruecker.
However, passengers may not be able to take advantage of these speedy aircrafts for another 20 years while they're being developed, according to the researchers.