Looking to nature for mechanical design inspiration


Mechanical engineering experts are increasingly turning to nature when looking for aircraft mechanical design inspiration.

In an attempt to develop more fuel efficient aircraft in line with environmental compliance, engineers are looking to the natural world to explore new mechanical design techniques which may one day feature on commercial airliners.

By studying the flight of birds and features of other animals, engineers can find new ways to reduce drag and better equip aircraft to adjust to changing weather conditions whilst in the air.

Known as biomimicry, engineers use aspects of the natural world to come up with mechanical design in a variety of modern day designs that affect our everyday lives and the way we travel for example.

Boeing has been following the developments in the biomimicry field so closely that the group has even sent engineering teams to Costa Rica to search for new ideas for mechanical design.

These trips have been organised by the Biomimicry Guild, and co-founder Dayna Baumeister believes that the future of aircraft design will be heavily influenced by designs from nature. She also helps organise workshops in Costa Rica and Peru for engineers coming from companies such as Boeing.

She says: “I’m almost 100% certain that flight as we know it today will not be flight as our children know it.”
David Hills, senior manager of flight physics research at Airbus has admitted that by looking to what the natural world offers around us, the aviation sector can find new ways to develop and design new features for the aircraft of the future.

Speaking to Flight Global he said: “Biomimicry is looking at how you can use Mother Nature as a measure.
“It is looking to the biological system and seeing where you can find guidance and inspiration and solutions that are free from the trappings of civil aeronautical design.”

And now engineers at The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany have come up with a mechanical design technique inspired by shark skin.

By developing a paint based on the structure of the skin, grooves that are similar to aircraft riblets can be applied to the coating of the aircraft.

As the paint contains nanoparticals the aircraft will be in a better position to deal with changing temperatures and conditions during flight.

Yvonne Wilke from the Institute now believes the paint would help the aviation industry save up to 4.48 million tonnes of fuel each year. The product could even be made available for commercial use in the next three to eight years however at present it is still in the development stage.

She said: “There is interest and there are projects on this paint and its application in the aircraft industry and the ship-building sector.

“All of these projects are in the phase of carrying out technical experiments.”
Another aspect of the natural world that may feature in aviation design components is by using fish slime to reduce drag on the aircraft as it travels through the air.