“Debugging” the Wings of a Plane

Flying headfirst into a fine mist of bugs sounds like the stuff of nightmares, but it could be a solution for a classic aerospace engineering problem, or as NASA calls it, “aviation’s holy grail.”

Jason Paur of Wired:

Laminar flow is the aerodynamic phenomenon engineers use to minimize turbulence in airflow next to the wing’s surface. Less turbulence means less drag. Less drag means greater efficiency. But laminar flow is highly susceptible to irregularities on the wing surface.

These irregularities include rivets, hinges, flaps, and yes, insects that stick to plane wings. The more insects on wings, the lower the fuel efficiency of the plane.

The future of flight takes some guts (of bugs, that is).

Bugs are unavoidable at lower altitudes, and the mess that’s created during takeoff sticks with the plane through the entire trip. Engineers are working to minimize the splatter, but they can’t test their possible solutions on planes carrying passengers for obvious safety reasons. So what’s an engineer to do? Well, the German Aerospace Center has been flying Airbus A320s no more than a few hundred feet off the ground, where most bugs are in the air column, at the Magdeburg-Cochstedt airport in Germany. The research team has made as many as 30 low-level passes per day on each of their four separate outings.

The splatter patterns have given them some interesting ideas.

Again, Jason Paur:

The researchers think it is possible to design a leading edge slat – the device that slides forward during take off and landing at the front of the wing – that would direct the airflow in a way to minimize the number of bugs impacting the wing.

It may not make for a smoother ride, but it’ll make for a cleaner—and more fuel efficient—plane.