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Researchers squash bugs to better wings

By Adina Solomon

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is smashing insects – all in the name of fuel efficiency.

During takeoff and landing, aircraft sometimes collide with swarms of insects, cutting fuel efficiency. DLR researchers are working with Airbus to investigate how bugs disturb the airflow over wings. Their goal is to create wings that will incorporate insect protection.

In order to do this, the researchers conducted low-altitude flights over Magdeburg-Cochstedt Airport in Cochstedt, Germany, with an Airbus 320 that has been converted into a research aircraft.

The reason for flying low is that insects are rarely found above an altitude of 200 meters (656 feet). The A320 flew 15 meters (50 feet) above the ground so that researchers could study the effects of bugs in as short a time as possible.

“In order to increase the economic efficiency as well as environmental compatibility of transport aircraft, its fuel burn needs to be reduced,” Dominic Gloss, a researcher at DLR’s Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology, says in an email interview. “The laminar technology offers great potential in reducing the wing friction drag, leading to the aspired fuel savings.”

Laminar flow is used to reduce the drag of airplane wings, making for a more aerodynamic aircraft. In order to combat the effect of insects on wings, future models will need to have smoother surfaces.

“Numerous surface bumps caused by rivets, layers and joints are affecting the wings to date,” Gloss says. “To develop the laminar-flow wing, these flow disruptors have to be eliminated. Future laminar-flow wings are based on a smooth and flow-optimized surface.”

During the flights, the researchers caught the bugs on adhesive films. They are storing the insect patterns in their computer models, which they will use for future wing designs.

Gloss is unsure when these insect-optimized wings would be available on aircraft.

“Questions about the availability of transport aircraft with laminar wings cannot be generally answered by research institutes like ours,” he says. “The availability of new technologies does not only depend on the understanding of the technical side, but also requires many other criteria and factors that need to be taken into account.”

The bug project, which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology, began in August 2012 and ends in April 2015.