Tag Archives: Wing

Google’s Wing makes the first drone-borne delivery in the US

Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet (the parent company of Google) is the first company in the United States to successfully deliver a package by drone.

Wing chose Christiansburg, Virginia, a city with 22,000 residents, to test their US drone delivery service. The company already operates in Helsinki and two cities in Australia. Locals in Christiansburg has the opportunity to have drones deliver goods to them — Wing lists Walgreens medicine, an assortment of candy from a local business, and products that would normally be shipped by FedEx among the options.

On Friday afternoon, the first purchase was made and then shipped to a lucky Christiansburger via drone, Wing told Medium.

The robots are coming! With your purchase

Customers can use an app developed by Wing to order goods via drone. One family had Tylenol, cough drops, Vitamin C tablets, bottled water, and tissues droned to their home, the statement added. Another customer brought a birthday present and, while delivery was handled by a FedEx truck for most of the way, a drone carried the package over the final mile-or-so stretch.

Walgreens thus becomes the first U.S. retailer to do a store-to-customer doorstep delivery via drone; FedEx will be the first logistics provider to deliver an e-commerce drone delivery with a separate shipment.

At Wing’s local operational center (called the ‘Nest’), the drones are packed with up to three pounds (1.3 kg) of goods at a time. From there, they can deliver the packages in a six-mile (10 km) range. The drones don’t land when they reach their delivery spot; instead, they hover above the building and lower the packages with a cable.

Other companies are working to launch similar systems in the US — Amazon, UPS, and Uber Eats are among the strongest contenders — but so far only Wing has obtained the necessary green lights from the federal government. For an economic actor to legally engage in such a business model, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs to issue a license allowing its pilots to fly multiple drones at the same time.

Wing and other drone-delivery companies hope to replace or at least reduce the number of vehicles on the road. Wing itself says their service is further aimed at people with limited mobility options and promises deliveries within “minutes” in Christiansburg’s designated delivery zones. A company spokesperson added that there will be no extra delivery fees.


Fossil Friday: Alcmonavis poeschli, the second-oldest bird we’ve ever found

Researchers have discovered the second species of Jurassic bird capable of flight and christened it Alcmonavis poeschli.


Image via Pixabay

The fossilized remains of the earliest-known primal bird were discovered in 1861. Since then, this species (Archaeopteryx) has been considered the only bird to live during the Jurassic period. As such, it was the direct ancestor of all of today’s birds, as well as the oldest-known flying representative of the bird family.

However, a group of researchers led by Professor Oliver Rauhut from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences as well as the Bavarian State Collection of Paleontology and Geology repot finding a new, previously unknown bird from the same period: Alcmonavis poeschli.

Pioneers of flight

“At first, we assumed that this was another specimen of Archaeopteryx. There are similarities, but after detailed comparisons with Archaeopteryx and other, geologically younger birds, its fossil remains suggested that we were dealing with a somewhat more derived bird,” says Rauhut, a paleontologist at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences as well as the Bavarian State Collection of Paleontology and Geology.

All the fossils of Archaeopteryx we’ve found so far were recovered from the Altmühl Valley, which is part of the Solnhofen Archipelago in Germany. During the Jurassic (around 150 million years ago), this region comprised mostly of reef islands, basically a subtropical lagoon landscape. In such an environment, flight was definitely an advantage.

It seems that Archaeopteryx wasn’t the only one to figure this out. Rauhut’s team has taxonomically identified the new species from the fossilized remains of one of its left wings. They report that Alcmonavis poeschli was somewhat larger than Archaeopteryx and was probably the better flier out of the two species. Alcmonavis seems to have traits more similar to today’s birds than Archaeopteryx, suggesting that it was better adapted to active flight (the one that involves flapping wings) than the latter. The discovery also suggests that Jurassic skies saw more traffic than we’d assumed up to now.

“The wing muscles indicate a greater capacity for flying,” Rauhut says about the new species, adding that its discovery “suggests that the diversity of birds in the late Jurassic era was greater than previously thought.”

The new species will likely also re-galvanize discussions around the evolution of active flight. We’ve previously seen some of the efforts researchers are using to find out when this ability first evolved, but the species they looked at in that study, Caudipteryx, lived in the early Cretaceous period — roughly 20 million years after Archaeopteryx and Alcmonavis. By contrast, Alcmonavis’ wing suggests that the “evolution of flight must have progressed relatively quickly,” says Dr. Christian Foth from the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), one of the co-authors of the study.

As for the name, Alcmonavis was named for the old Celtic word for the river Altmühl, Alcmona, and its discoverer Roland Pöschl, who leads the excavation at the Schaudiberg quarry where the fossil was discovered. The team explains that a fossil of Archaeopteryx was also discovered in the same unit of limestones as the new species — evidence that the two species lived during the same period.

The paper “A non-archaeopterygid avialan theropod from the Late Jurassic of southern Germany” has been published in the journal eLife.

NASA’s new futuristic airplane wing could revolutionize flight

A team of engineers has assembled and tested an innovative new type of wing. The structure, assembled from hundreds of tiny identical pieces, can change shape during flight to help pilots better control planes. The new futuristic wing is lighter, more efficient, and more maneuverable than currently existing wings.

Image credits: Eli Gershenfeld, NASA Ames Research Center.

It’s remarkable that our technology has developed so much that we take flying for granted. A dream for countless human generations across history, flying has become routine in our modern world. Nonetheless, modern aircraft are tremendously complex machines. Now, NASA wants to make them even more impressive, by taking wing design to the next level.

Flying involves several stages: takeoff, cruising, maneuvring, landing, and so on — each of which has its own optimal wing parameters. In order to be able to perform all these stages effectively, conventional wings compromise and sacrifice efficiency.

Furthermore, conventional wings require movable fin-like surfaces (called ailerons), which allow pilots to control the plane — if you’ve ever traveled on the window seat right above the wings, you’ve probably seen them. These ailerons reduce wing efficiency even more.

Engineers now believe they can address both issues by having a wing that shifts and deforms in its entirety based on temporary requirements.

Image credits: Kenny Cheung, NASA Ames Research Center.

The new wing features a radically different design, consisting of hundreds of tiny identical pieces. These pieces are huddled inside the wing, in an open, lightweight lattice framework, and this whole structure is covered with a thin layer of polymer material. It’s far lighter than conventional wings, which means that it uses less energy.

But the key aspect is that this flexible design allows it to morph into different shapes based on whatever the plane is doing (taking off, landing, etc). It’s a self-adjusting, wing-reconfiguration system.

While the prototype was hand-built by a team of graduate students (how would anything in science get done without graduate students?), the whole thing can be built using 3D printing and robotic assembly, meaning it is very scalable. This process is currently being documented in an upcoming paper.

Image credits: Credit: Kenny Cheung, NASA Ames Research Center.

As a comparison, the new wing lattice has a density of 5.6 kilograms per cubic meter. By comparison, rubber, which has a similar stiffness, has a density of 1,500 kilograms per cubic meter.

The wing was tested at NASA’s high-speed wind tunnel at Langley Research Center, where it performed even a bit better than predicted.


In addition to planes, this technology could also be used in wind turbine blades spacecraft, and even bridges. It’s without a doubt one of the most promising technologies of the year.


Engineers study the in-depth structure of wings to make better adhesive materials

Bird feathers may be the key to new adhesives and advanced aerospace materials.


A, E, and F show birth feathers under normal magnification and under the microscope. B shows a model of the team’s 3D-printed structures and its behavior during a wing’s upstroke (C) and downstroke (D).
Image credits T. Sullivan, M. Meyers, E. Arzt, 2019, Science Advances.

If you’ve ever toyed around with a feather you’ll know that they somehow pull themselves back together if you take their barbs apart. The structures that underpin this behavior may point the way to novel adhesives and aerospace materials, say researchers from the University of California San Diego.

On the wings of progress

Tarah Sullivan, who earned a Ph.D. in materials science from the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego, led the research efforts. Her team is the first in roughly two decades to take an in-depth look at the structure of bird feathers without focusing on a particular species.

Based on their observations, the team 3D-printed structures that mimic the vanes, barbs, and barbules of feathers to better understand their surprising properties. This step helped them better see how feathers knit themselves back together after you pull them apart, for example, or how their undersides can capture air for lift while the top of the feather can block air to help with the landing.

Sullivan found that barbules — smaller, hook-like structures that connect feather barbs — are spaced within 8 to 16 micrometers of each other. This distance remained stable throughout bird species, from the hummingbird to the condor, suggesting that it is an important property for flight.

“The first time I saw feather barbules under the microscope I was in awe of their design: intricate, beautiful and functional,” she said. “As we studied feathers across many species it was amazing to find that despite the enormous differences in size of birds, barbules spacing was constant.”

The vane-barb-barbule structure seen in feathers could lead to the development of new materials. Adhesives — similar to Velcro — and materials intended for the aerospace industry are the team’s main areas of interest. Sullivan has already built a prototype adhesive material which she plans on discussing in a follow-up paper.

“We believe that these structures could serve as inspiration for an interlocking one-directional adhesive or a material with directionally tailored permeability,” she said.

Sullivan’s team also took a look at the bones in bird wings. They found that the humerus (the longest bone in the wing) is disproportionately long. This is likely intended to give it enough strength to take the weight of a bird’s body in flight, they say. Because bone strength is limited, and because the humerus carries the brunt of the load during flight, scaling it up proportionately to the rest of the wing just doesn’t cut it. Instead, the bone needs to grow much faster and to a greater relative size to withstand the forces it’s subjected to during flight.

This process by which certain body parts grow at different rates than the body as a whole is known as allometry. Our brains, for example, are allometric, as they grow much faster than the rest of our bodies when we’re young. Our hearts are isometric, as they grow proportionately to the rest of the body.

“Professor Eduard Arzt, our co-author from Saarland University in Germany, is an amateur pilot and became fascinated by the ‘bird wing’ problem. Together, we started doing allometric analyses on them and result is fascinating,” said Meyers.

“This shows that the synergy of scientists from different backgrounds can produce wonderful new understanding.”

The paper “Scaling of bird wings and feathers for efficient flight” has been published in the journal Science Advances.


Novel video shows what drone impacts can do to planes. Spoiler alert: it’s very, very bad

Drones: they’re small, they’re kinda cute, and they’re really cool. But these little fliers can also be very dangerous, especially to air traffic.


Image credits University of Dayton Research Institute.

New research from the University of Dayton (UoD) Research Institute shows that these buzzing motes of technology pose a real threat to larger aircraft, with a direct impact able to cause severe structural damage to an aircraft’s frame.

Winging it

Given that planes are pretty big vehicles and civilian drones tend not to be that way, it’s easy to assume that the former would suffer only minor damage in the case of a collision. However, a new video released by researchers from the University of Dayton shows that this is far from the truth.

The team traditionally studies a similar hazard: that of mid-flight bird-airplane collisions. While such events aren’t too dangerous for planes, they can cause significant difficulties for pilots and some damage to the vehicle. Some of the most dangerous outcomes of a bird-plane collision include broken windows (and subsequent injuries to the crew), and engine damage. The team’s results are forwarded to the aircraft design industry, which uses the data to bird-proof their planes.

Given their background, the team wondered what the outcome of a drone-plane impact would be. In collaboration with researchers at the Sinclair College National UAS Training and Certification Center, they set up an experiment to find out. The test roughly followed the same layout as bird-impact tests: the team set up a target — the wing of a single-engine Mooney M20 — on a fixed mount, shot a drone at it at speeds similar to that of a flying aircraft, and filmed the whole thing. In effect, this simulates a plane hitting a drone during flight.

The footage shows that a drone can cause significant damage to an airplane, should they collide at full speed. Rather than breaking apart, bounding off, or glancing off (like birds tend to do), the drone acted like a cannonball — it tore through the vehicle’s fuselage, causing extensive internal damage. Most worryingly, it chewed right through the wing’s main spar, a key structural unit that carries the plane’s weight (i.e. it’s the part that keeps the wing from breaking off). Damage to the spar has a very high chance of making the plane incapable of flight.

Drone collisions cause greater and more severe damage to planes than birds of comparative size due to their solid motors, batteries, and other parts, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported in a study last year. These parts are much stiffer than the flesh of birds (which is mostly water), so they don’t disintegrate, and most often penetrate a vehicle’s skin. That study also says the FAA gets more than 250 sightings a month of drones posing potential risks to planes, most often near airports.

The UoD team says we need to do more extensive testing — using different sizes of drones and aircraft models — to fully understand the risks involved in such collisions. Furthermore, they point to a collision between a civilian quadcopter drone and a military helicopter that occurred last year, saying that it’s nearly certain we’ll see more such events in the future. The helicopter in that collision suffered severe damage to its rotor, but was able to make it back to base, crew unharmed.

The FAA called on drone manufacturers to develop and incorporate technology to detect and avoid planes. Judging from the UoD video, that’s a good first step. Pilots definitely shouldn’t rely on sheer luck, or current planes, to save them in a drone impact — both are flimsy defenses.

How the dragonfly got its wing patterns

Researchers used a new algorithm to calculate how one of the most intricate and delicate patterns in the natural world developed: the dragonfly wings.

The hindwing of a dragonfly. Dragonflies are among a group of insect species that have a complex network of veins, partitioning the wing into hundreds or thousands of small, simple shapes. The shape and position of these secondary veins are endlessly variable, generating unique patterns on each individual wing. Image credits: Harvard University.

Dragonflies have been around for 200 million years, and they’ve developed some remarkable features. For starters, they’re fierce predators, widely considered to be the most efficient predators in the animal world. Dragonflies are also agile fliers, with powerful wing muscles and a robust physical constitution. Sure, the wings seem very delicate and fragile to us, but at the insect scale, they’re truly powerhouses.

The wings of dragonflies also feature remarkably intricate patterns, which have puzzled researchers for quite a while. Each pattern is unique, but the reason why complicated patterns form (like leopard spots or zebra stripes) is still not exactly clear. So Harvard researchers set out to develop a framework for understanding how they form.

They compiled a database of more than 500 specimens from 215 different species of dragonflies and damselflies (a closely related group), “teaching” the algorithm to differentiate each individual shape made from the intersecting veins on the wings of the insect.

A differentiated, or segmented, wing outlining each individual polygonal shape made from the intersecting veins. Image credits: Harvard University.

The authors found that while every pattern is unique, the general distribution is remarkably similar across families and species. Based on this finding, the researchers built a developmental model for how these patterns can be formed.

They found that by inputting only a few simple parameters, they can determine the formation of complex patterns, similar to what is observed in nature.

Scientists tested the algorithm on several species, even some distantly related insects, finding that every time, it generates life-like reproduction of wings.

Dragonflies and damselflies have particularly elaborate vein patterns. The researchers compiled a dataset of wings from 232 species and 17 families of dragonflies and damselflies. Image credits: Harvard University.

Researchers also propose a reason why the patterns develop this way, though this has not been verified yet.

They believe the primary veins follow a regulated distribution pattern. From these veins, an inhibitory signal diffuses from multiple signaling centers. These inhibitory zones emerge randomly and repel one another, further preventing secondary veins from growing in certain areas. This already creates complex patterns, and as the wing grows and develops, it creates the complex geometries of the veins.

The study has been published in PNAS.

NASA’s morphing wing will make airplanes smoother, more efficient

A new shape-changing wing designed by MIT and NASA engineers could revolutionize the way we design flying vehicles. By twisting and morphing in flight, the “morphing wing” eliminates the need for flaps, ailerons, and winglets, making our planes more efficient and adaptable in the process.

Image credits NASA.

Birds’ wings have long been the envy of the aeronautical industry. While human-built planes may reach higher and fly faster than anything nature produced, they rely on clunky mechanisms and inflexible wings to stay aloft and maneuver. This impacts their energy (and thus, fuel) efficiency, limits the range of motions available, and the speed of maneouver. Birds, on the other hand, can affect subtle or more dramatic changes to their wings in flight, allowing them huge versatility and mobility compared to fixed wings.

So, wing shape has a huge hand to play in determining the flying capabilities of crafts, and rigid designs aren’t always the most efficient. NASA and MIT engineers have teamed together to bring some of the flexibility birds’ wings exhibit to airplanes.

“The ability to morph, or change shape, is desirable for a number of reasons in nature or in engineering, such as responding to varying external conditions, improving interaction with other bodies, or maneuvering in various media such as water or air,” the team explains.

They ditched the conventional system and started from scratch, assembling the wing using “a system of tiny, lightweight subunits” creating a mobile frame. These are covered with overlapping parts resembling feathers, which create the wing’s surface. The whole frame is built using only eight black, slightly squishy, carbon fiber elements — compared to the millions of plastic, composite, and metal parts that make a regular wing — covered with the shiny orange surface. Here’s an experimental, 5-feet (1.5 meter) model NASA put together:

Image credits NASA / MADCAT.

Image credits NASA / MADCAT.

Each of these eight components has a different stiffness, and the specific way they are interconnected makes the wings tunably flexible. Two small engines are all that’s required to twist the wing, changing the way it cuts through the air.

“One of the things that we’ve been able to show is that this building block approach can actually achieve better strength and stiffness, at very low weights, than any other material that we build with,” says NASA’S Kenny Cheung, one of the leaders of the project.

When the team placed a mock-up with the new wings in the wind tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center, Virginia, the dummy plane showed some spectacular aerodynamics.

“We maxed out the wind tunnel’s capacity,” says Cheung.

Airplane wings rely on ailerons to change directions and flaps for boosting lift at take-off and reduce landing distance. But when extended or manipulated, these surfaces create gaps in the wing — disturbing airflow, reducing performance, and generating noise.

“They require complex hydraulic and other actuators that add weight, complexity, and things that can go wrong,” adds Mark Sensmeier, an aerospace engineer at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The full paper “Digital Morphing Wing: Active Wing Shaping Concept Using Composite Lattice-Based Cellular Structures” has been published in the journal SoftRobotics.

NASA plans to make airplanes cleaner and 50% more fuel efficient by reviving the wing truss

NASA plans to improve today’s planes with a blast from the past — re-implementing a structure known as a wing truss would reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions of common commercial aircraft by as much as 50%, according to computational models.

Early aircraft were… Well they were horrible, really. These flimsy cloth-and-wire machines offered their pilots virtually no protection against the cold. Their open cabins also meant that it was impossible to create a pressurized environment so the pilots wouldn’t black out from lack of oxygen at high altitudes. Thankfully that wasn’t much of a problem as their engines barely had enough power to get them off the ground in the first place.

This meant that early pioneers of aircraft design had to squeeze every ounce of lift from their designs, while keeping them as light as possible. Designs such as the biplane, triplane and wacky multiplane generated enough lift even at low speeds but also huge amounts of drag, and were thus limited in maximum speed.

Another piece of technology from the era however, the wing truss, has recently caught NASA engineers’ as a possible avenue for improvement of modern designs.

A wing truss is a support structure connecting the body of the plane to the wing, and can be seen in modern ultra-light prop-planes such as the Cessna 182.

Trust in the truss.
Image credits wikimedia – author unknown.

By transferring part of the strain to the fuselage, trusses allow for longer, thinner but also lighter wings to be constructed without sacrificing lift. Lower weight and improved carrying capacity would translate into lower much more efficient use of engine power, according to NASA:

“Researchers expect the lighter weight, lower drag truss-braced wing to reduce both fuel burn and carbon emissions by at least 50% over current technology transport aircraft, and by 4 to 8% compared to equivalent advanced technology conventional configurations with unbraced wings.”

But there’s a reason trusses were abandoned in the first place: they add drag and disturb the flow of air around the aircraft. But, by using modern digital modeling techniques, engineers can design around this problem.

“Using computational results showing how air would flow around the model, they [the researchers] modify the dimensions and shape of the wing and truss to improve areas that may generate undesirable air flow that would increase drag and reduce lift. Then engineers test models in a wind tunnel using multiple experimental techniques to validate the computations and aircraft performance predictions.’

If higher fuel efficiency and reduced emissions aren’t enough to impress you, there’s another quieter benefit to consider: trussed wings produce less noise during flight, meaning you won’t hear jets roaring overhead anymore.