TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/robert_full_on_engineering_and_evolution.html


Insects and animals have evolved some amazing skills — but, as Robert Full notes, many animals are actually over-engineered. The trick is to copy only what’s necessary. He shows how human engineers can learn from animals’ tricks.

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Photos by Bret Tobalske (and Fernanda d’Agostino)

“The flying abilities of even the most prosaic bird put airplane maneuvers to shame, and experts here at the University of Montana Flight Laboratory are cognizant of that every day.

“Birds can do some pretty spectacular things,” said Kenneth P. Dial, a biologist who, in 1988, founded the lab at a field station near the University of Montana. “They can go from 40 miles an hour to zero and land on a branch that’s moving, all in a couple of seconds. It’s inspiring.”

Dr. Dial and Bret W. Tobalske, a biologist and the director of the lab, are obsessed with trying to bridge the gap in flying abilities between humans and birds. At a laboratory filled with wind tunnels, high-speed cameras, lasers, surgical equipment and a device that generates clouds of olive oil, they and several graduate students try to divine the secrets of bird flight.

In a quiet field, Dr. Dial, 57, with a shaved head and goatee, stands out with his evangelical zeal about understanding bird flight. He has hosted a television show on adventures in bird-watching, and is so enthusiastic about flight that he and his son, Terry, also a biologist, are planning to fly around the world as pilot and co-pilot.

Dr. Dial’s 28 years of studying the functional morphology of all kinds of birds have led him and others at the lab to numerous insights into ecology, biodiversity, airplane design, aerospace and even paleontology. In a recent paper, Dr. Dial and a graduate student, Brandon E. Jackson, presented a novel idea about how some dinosaurs used their proto-wings — a possible step in the evolution of flight. They based their paper on the observation of day-old Australian brush turkey chicks.

The laboratory, at Fort Missoula, was once a stable for the United States Cavalry. What makes it unique as a lab, though, is its location in the wilderness of western Montana, with bald eagles, peregrine falcons, meadowlarks, ducks and other wild birds in the mountains and rivers right out the door.

Dr. Dial says some of his most important observations have been made watching a bird glide by while he is fly fishing, and then heading back to the lab with a new theory to test.

After observing woodpeckers in the lab’s wind tunnel both flying and “bounding” — gliding missilelike with their wings tucked, a behavior not previously identified in these birds — Dr. Tobalske was able to see the same gliding a few hundred yards out the door, which confirmed it was not a product of lab conditions.

One key to the insights here is a small, dark room with two 1,000-frames-per-second cameras, developed by the military to study ballistics, which slow high-speed action in high resolution. Wild birds in flight are misted with a fog of vaporized olive oil, which is illuminated by a green strobing laser operating in tandem with the camera. The system allows researchers to track the movement of misty air around the birds, showing where they are generating lift and drag. It led to the discovery here of a vortex on the leading edge of bird wings, which adds to a bird’s lift.”

For full story: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/04/science/04birds.html?scp=2&sq=%2baerospace&st=nyt

Since our last visit to the Glenmore Reservoir in October, we decided to pay the indoor testing tank (image below) a second visit to undertake anoter stage of testing. This time- for paddle noise.

Equipped with our paddles (courtesy of Undercurrents, Calgary AB) and armed with an acoustic noise measuring device (courtesy of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Calgary AB) we headed to the Glenmore Reservoir’s Indoor Facility to undertake our first round of acoustic testing.

The paddles were tested to assess how much overall noise each one generated during a paddling cycle of 10 strokes. Two intensity levels were chosen- one at 20 beats per minutes (BPM), and a second trial at 30 BPM- meaning a new stroke was started at each 20 or 30 beat increment.

The various paddles tested are shown here:

The Dihedral Paddle

The ‘Scoop’ Paddle

The Otter Tail

The Traditional Paddle

The Shearwater Paddle

Noise Level Results (click image to enlarge)

Keeping in mind inherent error in the testing methodology, generalized conclusions should be made with caution.

However, this is a promising preliminary result which suggests that the ‘quietness’ of the paddle can be optimized further from conventional paddles currently on the market.

Phidget info

Phidgets were originally designed here at the University of Calgary, by a

colleague of Jeff Boyd’s in the Computer Science Department and are a vast

variety of low-cost ‘plug and play’ sensors and motors connected through a

USB port and controlled by a PC.

The sensor I chose for this project was the ‘1056 – PhidgetSpatial 3/3/3’

for its plug and play functionality and it’s compact, all-in-one design.

It can measure:

– static and dynamic acceleration in 3 axes, up to 5g.

– magnetic field in 3-axes up to ±4 Gauss

– measures angular rotation in 3 axes, up to ±400° per second

a compass and correction package are also included to, not only tell

direction, but assist in error and offset correction caused by magnetic




1056 Phidget Product page:


Phidget Description:



Whale inspiration

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The footage above was taken at the Glenmore Reservoir (Indoor tank), shows the shearwater paddle in action. Although the paddle is removed from the water during the recovery stroke, the vorticies that are produced during the power stroke are quite vivid. Alot of questions around these vortices’s, and how they can be utilized best by the paddle.

This side by side footage helps in showing how much the water is disrupted during the power stroke. The paddle on the right is a standard canoe paddle commonly used. Although there may be a difference in the energy applied for each paddle design, much is to be investigated regarding the shape design and water displacement. The biomimetic paddle design looks promising, but further testing is required to quantify some areas of concern.

FLOWE wind farm design


Company: The Caltech Field Laboratory for Optimized Wind Energy
Product Phase: Under development
Product Type: Wind farm spatial design

Energy boost from vortices: bull trout >

As fish swim, they shed tiny vortices. In large schools of fish, individuals transfer energy to each other with these vortices, lowering the energetic costs of swimming. Researcher John Dabiri has taken inspiration from this strategy and applied similar principles to the spatial design of wind farms. By placing vertical-axis turbines (different from the traditional horizontal-axis, propeller-style turbines) close together in a strategic array, energy is gathered by each turbine, while simultaneously directing wind to nearby turbines. Dabiri’s research team, supported in part by Windspire Energy Inc., is currently working to determine ideal positioning of turbines to achieve optimum power output.


The largest issue facing wind farms is the space required for propeller-style turbines to function properly. The vertical-axis turbines used by researchers demand less space to operate and are placed in close proximity as a necessary part of the spatial design, significantly decreasing the acreage necessary for the gathering of wind power.


Dabiri estimates that once optimal positioning is determined, it may be possible to produce 10 times the amount of wind energy currently generated by a common horizontal turbine wind farm.


Via The Guardian

Via http://icons-ecast.wunderground.com/data/wximagenew/p/PaulTurner/20.jpg

Via AskNature

Via http://www.ericarnold.us/images/photo-duckfeet.jpg

Via http://animal.discovery.com/mammals/platypus/pictures/platypus-picture.jpg

Collection of weird fins

Follow link

Image via http://www.freepatentsonline.com/6685521-0-large.jpg

Paddle patents