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Research on hummingbird flight will lead to new technology

Nature serves as an inspiration for many technologies, and researchers in the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University are taking their inspiration for a micro air vehicle (MAV) design from the hummingbird.

Jeremy Peņa, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, uses an instrument designed by a fellow student to simulate the movement of hummingbird wings. The device appears submerged in a water test channel in the Aero/Fluids Laboratory on campus. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

The researchers are using a scale model that can mimic the wing motion of an actual hummingbird, allowing accurate measurements and observations of how air flows around the wings as they flap.

MAVs can be used in a wide range of important surveillance and tactical reconnaissance functions. However, vehicles measuring 10 centimeters or less might have a problem with hovering and vertical flight in windy conditions. This has led to research on how animals like hummingbirds fly and hover.

The principal investigator for the project is James Allen, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. The co-investigators are Banavara Shashikanth, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Paulo Ferreira de Sousa, a postdoctoral fellow in the mechanical engineering department.

Master's candidate Jeremy Peņa is working on the project as well. Another master's candidate, Scott Hightower, was on the research team until his graduation in the spring. The three-year project is being funded by the Air Force Office for Scientific Research.

De Sousa said research on the aerodynamics of bird and insect flight is recent. "We were able to put a 747 in the air before we understood how birds hover or how insects fly," he said.

The model was designed by Hightower and built by the physics department. It is being tested in the Low Turbulence Water Tunnel, located in the Aero/Fluids Lab at NMSU. The project will be conducted in two phases. The goal of the first phase is to gain more understanding of the relationship between wing movement and forces during flapping-wing hover, and to begin to develop analysis tools that will help build and assess flapping-wing MAVs.

"A basic goal is to understand how the hummingbird uses vortices," Shashikanth said. "Vortices are basically circulatory regions of the fluid flow. Hummingbirds are capable of amazing maneuvers, like hovering. It is strongly believed that they can do this by efficiently extracting momentum and energy from vortices shed by flapping their wings, but the physics and the fluid dynamics involved are still not very clear. So we want to understand these fundamental issues better and then apply it to our models."

The second phase will include studying the model's forward flight. The researchers will create an aerodynamic flight-control scheme for flapping-wing MAVs operating in windy conditions, and use this scheme to develop a prototype flapping-wing air vehicle.

"Such MAVs are useful for both scientific and military applications," Shashikanth said. The research will be used to design vehicles that can perform tasks a human-operated vehicle could not. "These could be missions where you don't want to risk human life. Or it may be something that requires a lot of endurance, beyond the capacity of humans."

Peņa is performing experiments with the model and doing data collection. "We're learning how to do particle image velocimetry," he said.

If a picture is taken of a moving object, and then another picture is taken at a different point, and the weight of the object is known, the difference in distance between the two objects can be measured and the thrust can be found. In this case, the goal is to find the force and thrust through liquid. "We're going to be able to measure simulated thrust," Peņa said.

In a previous study supervised by Allen, a model hummingbird was placed in a smoky environment, and students monitored the patterns created in the smoke flow by the movement of the flapping wings. This helped researchers understand how birds generate thrust so efficiently.

The research will provide a better understanding of flapping-wing aeromechanics and pave the way toward developing tools for analysis and design of flapping-wing micro air vehicles.