DLR Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology / DLR Institute of Aeroelasticity
Learning from humpback whales may mean learning to fly better, researchers say.
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updated 1/30/2012 6:31:32 PM ET 2012-01-30T23:31:32

Helicopters can deliver military troops or rescue the wounded in tight spaces, but their rotating blade design also puts a hard limit on their speed and maneuverability. Now researchers have begun flight-testing an unlikely fix inspired by the underwater ballet of humpback whales.

The potentially cheap solution uses small bumps along the front edge of the helicopter blades similar to bumps found on the large pectoral fins of humpback whales. Such bumps give an aerodynamic edge that delays the moment of "stalling" when there's not enough lift to keep the whale from sinking — or a helicopter from stalling out at top speeds.

"Stalling is one of the most serious problems in helicopter aerodynamics — and one of the most complex," said Kai Richter from the DLR Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology in Germany.

DLR Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology / DLR Institute of Aeroelasticity
The flight test helicopter used to try out the rotor blade bumps.

Helicopters face a speed limit because their backward-moving rotor blade goes against their forward motion of flight. That problem leads to turbulence and loss of lift, as well as strong forces acting on the rotor, which eventually cause the helicopter to stall out.

German researchers patented the bump idea for helicopters, under the name "Leading-Edge Vortex Generators." Wind tunnel experiments led to a test flight with a helicopter carrying 186 rubber bumps —each less than a quarter of an inch long — glued to its four rotor blades.

"The pilots have already noticed a difference in the behavior of the rotor blades," Richter said. "The next step is a flight using special measuring equipment to accurately record the effects."

If testing goes well, existing helicopters could get a speed boost with simple retrofits. New helicopters could have the design built into their titanium blades during manufacturing.

The natural bump design already helps humpback whales swim at speeds of up to 16.5 miles per hour, or about five times faster than the fastest human swimmer.

"Research has shown that these bumps cause stalling to occur significantly later underwater and increase buoyancy," said Holger Mai from the DLR Institute of Aeroelasticity in Germany. "Flow phenomena in water are similar to those in air; they just need to be scaled accordingly."

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