The evolution of aircraft

To build better, more efficient   aircraft this innovative research project took inspiration from nature.

How can natural materials and cellular structures improve aircraft design and manufacturing? A consortium of 9 organizations representing the whole of aircraft life cycle decided to find out. They joined forces in a European research project that delivers practical innovations and new global standards.

Inspiration from tree trunks

It’s hard to beat millions of years of evolution when it comes to incredibly efficient structures and materials. From bird’s bones to shark skin, nature offers amazing solutions to technical challenges. Bionic design aims to take nature’s best practices and apply them to modern day engineering problems. Such design methods are a fantastic way to come up with unexpected, innovative solutions. Solutions like hollow aircraft parts, like bird’s bones, beams that mimic the internal structure of bend-resistant  grass  stalks,  and fillet connections based on tree-trunk- to-root configurations.

Layers

Additive layer manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, makes it possible to produce the ‘hollow bone’ designs researched in this project. Manufactured with less material, with increased energy efficiency and the final parts are easier to maintain and repair. More good news: standardization lets other manufacturers build on this research, come up with compatible techniques, hopefully accelerating the adoption of highly efficient bionic design in aviation.

Improving on innovation

Standardization was instrumental in getting the research funded and bringing the results to a broad audience. The Spanish standards organisation UNE identified related standards, quickly getting the partners up-to-date on best practices and gaps in the state of the art. They reached out to leading Technical Committees (such as the Aerospace and Defense Industries Association of Europe and the ISO committees on Non-destructive testing). This attracted the attention of various interested stakeholders, which meant their feedback could be implemented at an early stage.

Standards resulting from the project

So far, several new international standards for manufacturing efficient machine parts came out of the research. For example, the international Technical Committee on Biomimetics will standardize the bionic design method of creating hollow metal parts instead of solid ones. Another new standard involves a non-destructive test method using ultrasonic inspection of hollow parts.

Now boarding...

When can you board a bionic airplane? You might already have been! Airbus, one the partners in this project, is already building hulls with grooved, shark-like skin for improved aerodynamics and albatross-inspired wings to improve the performance of their jetliners. The innovative materials and manufacturing techniques developed in this research project will, with a little help from standardization organizations, be standardized and ready for mass adoption as soon as possible.

Further Readings

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