We may soon be able to beat the traffic by commuting to work in a NEW kind of hybrid: an electric plane/car. And when it comes to planes, should we design airplanes that flap their wings like birds do? Birds, bats and insects flap their wings, and they outperform man-made aircraft in aerobatics and efficiency. Engineers may be able to design planes with wingspans smaller than a deck of playing cards (handy for parking in tight spots once you get to the office!)

In BBC News, Maggie Shiels writes that “the solution to gridlock on our overcrowded roads is to take to the air in a plane-car hybrid that will revolutionize the way society works.” She quotes inventor Richard Jones as saying, “When they dumped the horse and cart people took over two continents. 150 years ago steam turned America into a nation. Today 50% of the world lives in urban areas thanks to the car. And in the last 50 years, the aviation industry has made one world thanks to the airplane.”

Engineer Wei Shyy says, “Natural flyers obviously have some highly varied mechanical properties that we really have not incorporated in engineering?Natural flyers have outstanding capabilities to remain airborne through wind gusts, rain, and snow.” Flapping flight is inherently unsteady, but that’s why it works so well. Birds, bats and insects fly in a messy environment full of gusts traveling at speeds similar to their own. Yet they can react almost instantaneously and adapt with their flexible wings.

Shyy says, “These days, if you want to design a flapping wing vehicle, you could build one with trial and error, but in a controlled environment with no wind gusts. We are trying to figure out how to design a vehicle that can perform a mission in an uncertain environment. When the wind blows, how do they stay on course?”

Shiels quotes physicist Ben Santer as saying, “We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are changing the chemistry of the earth’s atmosphere by burning fossil fuels in cars and airplanes. If we don’t want to have really serious changes to our climate then we have to figure out other ways of doing business” and quotes researcher Brien Seeley as saying, “The electric aircraft promises to solve these problems and produce a real enlightenment of aviation with new technology and a rebirth of popular general aviation and personal aviation travel.”

Art credit: freeimages.co.uk

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