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Using a supercomputer with the power of 8,000 computers, researchers have created an airplane wing that closely mimics the properties of actual bird wings.

Researchers from the University of Denmark have designed the new airplane wings, which are significantly lighter than the current wings used on planes. If implemented into airplane designs, the wings could result in substantial fuel savings.

Niels Aage, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Denmark and the lead researcher for the study, explained in an interview with R&D Magazine that the bird wing design was years in the making.

“We have for a long time been convinced that extreme resolution would be a benefit for practical design tasks,” he said. “However, since no one shared this thought with us we decided to try it out ourselves.

“We then spent from 2010 to 2015 developing new methods that enabled us to perform the wing study,” he added.

The newly designed wings are lighter than existing wings by 2-to-5 percent, but equally as stiff as conventional wings.

According to Aage, engineers have used this kind of optimization techniques on a smaller scale for the last two decades, including making individual wing components or much simpler structures.

The researchers used the supercomputer to increase the resolution on a model of a 27-meter long wing of a Boeing 777.

The project began with a wing outline that was optimized for maximum lift and minimum drag called an aerofoil. They then split it into 1.1 billion 3D pixels, each with resolution roughly 200 times greater than previous efforts.

Conventional wings are built with straight beams running the length of the wings, interspersed by crossing supports. However, the new design has a curved support that fans out at the trailing edge of the wing, resembling the bone structure of bird wings. The intricate support structures in the leading edge resemble the internal structure of a bird’s beak.

According to Aage, the next step for the researchers in the wing design is to incorporate aero elasticity, anisotropy and dynamic effects into the design.

Aage said the design could also be applied to other industries to develop high-rise buildings in earthquake-prone zones that can maintain their stiffness while withstanding the dynamics of the earthquake.

“We are approaching a new paradigm within the field of computer aided design [and optimal design] in which we start redesigning everything,” he said. “For decades we might have thought that we could not do much better in a given problem setting, but now there is a real change that we can get significant improvements.”

 

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