Archive for January, 2011

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

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