How studying gulls’ wings could improve aircraft design

How studying gulls' wings could improve aircraft design
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New research from the University of British Columbia into the how gull alters its wing shape from could improve aircraft design.

The discovery of the simple mechanism by which gulls alter their wing shapes to adapt to windy conditions could lead to developments in aircraft design.

The findings

To determine the stability of different wing shapes of gulls, the researchers prepared gull wings over the anatomical elbow range and measured their performance in a wind tunnel, as well as observing gulls out in the wild.

As the gusts of wind and the gull’s wing speed increases, the gull sacrifices its stability for manoeuvrability. The gull alters the angle of its elbow joint to shift from an extended wing configuration to a flexed configuration. The flexed shape of the gull pulling the tips of its wings in and back affords the gull greater control.

How it could improve aircraft design

Douglas Altshuler, senior author on the paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface and zoologist at UBC, said: “While we know birds frequently alter their wing shape, this is the first empirical evidence demonstrating how that wing morphing affects avian stability. And in this case, the gull’s wing design points to a novel, and fairly simple, avian-inspired joint that may enable [an] aircraft to adjust dynamically to challenging conditions.”

Christina Harvey, who is now at the University of Michigan, and worked on the research with Altshuler, added:”The Wright brothers weren’t the first to design an aircraft that was able to fly, but they were the first to successfully control and stabilize a powered aircraft inflight”

“Likewise, it’s not enough for birds to simply produce sufficient lift and thrust. They must also control and stabilize their flight paths to be able to successfully forage and migrate in their natural habitat.”

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