A photo from RMIT's anti-turbulence system wind tunnel test

Feather mimicking sensor system to tackle turbulence

A sensor system that mimics the way feathers help birds detect disturbances in the air could help lessen the impact of turbulence on planes.

The system is based on the concept of phase-advanced sensing, in which flow disturbance is sensed before it results in aircraft movement by early sensing of the pressures from gust effects on the leading parts of the wing or by measuring the gusts ahead of the wing.

Designed by researchers from the Unmanned Systems Research Team at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, the system has been shown to significantly reduced the effects of turbulence in tests on a micro plane.

“By sensing gusts and disturbances in air flow through their feathers, birds are able to fly gracefully rather than bouncing around in turbulent air,” said research supervisor Professor Simon Watkins.

“The system we have developed replicates this natural technology, with the aim of enabling planes to fly smoothly through even severe turbulence – just like birds.”

The team has lodged a provisional patent on the system and Watkins says the system has great potential for all sizes of aircraft. As well as reducing the effects of turbulence on passengers the system could also reduce loads on plane wings, leading to lower fatigue and hence longer life, he said.

“While we need to explore new sensor arrangements to apply this technology to larger and faster aircraft, we have proven the idea on the most challenging problem of keeping small, lightweight planes steady – since these are the ones that get bounced around the most,” he added.

The system was developed in part thanks to theoretical research carried out by Abdulghani Mohamed as part of a PhD in the field of turbulence and its effects on flight vehicles.

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