Mar 27, 2017 | By Benedict

Inspired by the physiology of the peregrine falcon, researchers at British defense company BAE Systems and City, University of London have developed 3D printed “sensory feathers” and other new aircraft technologies that could be applied to real aircraft within the next 20 years.

The peregrine falcon is the world's fastest bird

You’d be forgiven for thinking that 3D printed, bird-inspired aircraft technology occupied something of a niche market. 3D printing is, after all, a fairly new manufacturing tool in the aerospace sector, while the most futuristic aircraft around around tend to look…well…nothing like birds.

But you’d be wrong! Just a couple of months ago we reported on an update from Clear Flight Solutions, a Dutch startup that has created a birdlike 3D printed drone called the “Robird” which is designed to scare away real birds at airports.

Since then, we’ve also seen 3D printed bat robots, and now there’s more: hot on the heels (talons?) of these weird innovations, British defense company BAE Systems has swooped in with its own unusual bird/aircraft/AM project.

In collaboration with scientists from City, University of London, BAE Systems has developed a set of new, bird-inspired flight technologies, including 3D printed “sensory feathers” made of plastic, that could be implemented into real aircraft within the next 20 years.

The Eurofighter Typhoon, an aircraft manufactured by BAE Systems

These future aircraft won’t flap their wings like Robirds (or real birds), but they will exhibit a number of mechanical properties directly inspired by the physiology of the peregrine falcon, the world’s fastest bird. BAE and City say that these avian-derived technologies will improve the safety, aerodynamics, and fuel efficiency of future aircraft.

“The peregrine falcon is the world’s fastest bird, able to dive for prey at incredibly steep angles and high velocities,” commented Professor Christoph Bruecker from City’s Aeronautical Engineering department. “The research work has been truly fascinating and I am sure it will deliver some real innovation and benefits for the aerospace sector.”

BAE Systems, the third-largest defense company in the world, already has some pretty speedy aircraft in its hangars. The company’s Typhoon and Tornado bombers, for example, are both used by Britain’s RAF (Royal Air Force), with the former plane able to hit speeds of around 1,550 mph.

That’s a great deal faster than the 200 mph top speeds of the peregrine falcon, but since the bird fuels itself with a diet of songbirds and bats instead of, well, fuel, BAE and its university partner thought they could learn a thing or two from it.

One of the key new technologies inspired by the peregrine falcon is something the researchers have called “sensory feathers.” These 3D printed polymer “hair” filaments, inspired the feathers of the falcon, would act like sensors on the body of an aircraft, providing an early warning if it was in danger of stalling.

These 3D printed feathers could have other functions too. According to BAE and City, densely packed passive polymer filaments could be used to alter the airflow close to the surface of the aircraft, effectively reducing drag on the aircraft wing-skin and making the vehicle go faster.

BAE Systems developed its 3D printed aircraft technology in collaboration with City, University of London

Examining the function of falcon feathers also prompted other innovations during the research project. For example, when a falcon swoops to land, it can stabilize itself by ruffling its feathers. The researchers believe that this helpful function could be replicated with flexible or hinged flaps on an aircraft, allowing the wing to maneuver quickly and land more safely at lower speeds.

These hypothetical flaps could allow future aircraft to be smaller or carry more fuel, and could also lower noise pollution.

Additive manufacturing has been used by aerospace giants like Boeing and Airbus for some time, but 3D printed feathers on fighter jets has to be one of the more unusual ideas we’ve come across. Let’s hope it takes off.

“Working with Professor Christoph Bruecker and his team at City, we’ve investigated how we could apply the unique abilities of the peregrine falcon to aircraft,” said Professor Clyde Warsop, a specialist in Aerodynamic Flow Control at BAE Systems. “Bio-inspiration is not a new concept; many technologies that we use every day are increasingly inspired by animals and nature.”

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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