Flying snakes could inspire better wind turbines

flying snake
CC BY-ND 2.0 richardrichard

Researchers are getting closer to understanding exactly how flying snakes fly and that information could lead to better aerodynamic technology, including better wind turbines.

Three species of snakes in the genus Chrysopelea -- native to Southeast and South Asia -- are able to glide up to 100 feet in the air. The snakes launch themselves from a tree branch, rotate their ribs to create a flat body shape and then move their bodies side to side as they glide as though they were swimming through the air.

The George Washington University says, "At least 30 independent animal lineages have evolved gliding flight, but the flying snake is the only glider without appendages, using a similar mode of locomotion to navigate the earth, water and air."

This of course makes the flying snake incredibly fascinating. Researchers are trying to understand how they fly and how that answer could solve mechanical problems in the real world. The team, led by Lorena Barba, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the George Washington University School of Engineering and Applied Science, used computational fluid dynamics to examine the aerodynamics of the flying snakes.

Based on the results of the computer model, researchers built physical models of the snakes and tested them in a wind tunnel to measure things like lift force. They found something interesting.

The university says, "Researchers expected the aerodynamic lift of the snake to increase with the angle of attack (the angle between the profile and the trajectory of flight) and then to drop suddenly after a stall. But Dr. Socha measured lift increasing up to an angle of 30 degrees, a sharp boost at an angle of 35 degrees, then a gentle decrease. This suggests that flying snakes use a mechanism called lift enhancement to get an extra boost, explained Dr. Barba."

When they looked closer in the computer models, they found that at certain angles of gliding, a snake’s curves can generate extra boosts of power. At that angle, small whirlwinds of air generated around the snake give it added suction and lift.

Now that they understand more about the lift, they want to build a 3-D model to study why the snake moves side-to-side while gliding.

"It’s not wild to think that our understanding of the fluid mechanics of this particular shape could lead us to, for example, design a different type of air flow that is ideal for energy harvesting, or a wind turbine – or who knows,” she said. "You find applications in unexpected places."

Flying snakes could inspire better wind turbines
The secret to the animals' flight could one day improve the aerodynamics of wind energy harvesting technology.

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