Dragonfly wings used to design lighter, stronger and 'greener' Boeing 777 wings

Could millions of years of evolution help us better understand how to design lighter, stronger, and more sustainable aircraft wings?
Christopher McFadden
Could dragonfly wings help design better aircraft wings?


Researchers from the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania have found that dragonfly wings could help engineers design lighter, stronger, and more sustainable aircraft wings. Building on the principles of biomimicry (copying nature's evolved strategies for a problem), Masoud Akbarzadeh and his former Ph.D. student Hao Zheng have studied the wing of a dragonfly to redesign that of a Boeing 777.

Inspired by nature

“Nature’s a great teacher in telling us how to optimize systems,” Akbarzadeh says. “And when you look at a dragonfly, you see wings that have evolved over millions of years into an incredibly lightweight, efficient, and strong structure," he added.

Intrigued by the shape and composition of the dragonfly wings, they discovered that its veins give the wings both durability and flexibility, enabling dragonflies to fly with agility and speed. “When we looked closely at the patterns on a dragonfly’s wing, we realized that it includes many convex polygons,” Akbarzadeh says.

“The convex network of the wing is very similar to the efficient networks we design using the method of graphic statics that we research and develop in the lab,” he says. “We thought, ‘Could we use our geometry-based analysis tools to analyze these patterns and recreate them under different conditions for other types of wings?’” he added.

The scientists used Maxwell's reciprocal diagrams, initially proposed by James Clerk Maxwell in 1864, to examine the intricate vein network of dragonfly wings. This method, which calculates the balance of forces in a system, was crucial in understanding the physics of the wing structure. “There was a correlation between the thickness of the connected constituent components, or members, and the in-plane equilibrium of that network,” Akbarzadeh says. “In simpler terms, it’s like taking the dragonfly’s vascular network, pulling it from all sides, and finding that the overall structure works perfectly as a tensile network, at least on a 2D plane," he added.

“This was shocking,” he explained, “because the wing is designed for bending behavior associated with flapping movements rather than a tension-only or compression-only network,” he said. The researchers studied the wing structure's behavior by mimicking its structural pattern. “Eventually, we showed that this approach could result in more efficient wing structures against out-of-plane bending,” Akbarzadeh added.

The team utilized their discoveries in practical situations by integrating designs inspired by dragonflies into a 2D extruded airframe of a Boeing 777 wing at a 1:120 scale. The team observed a remarkable increase in the structural efficiency of the wings. The dragonfly design improved the out-of-plane stiffness by 25%, indicating the possibility of developing lighter and more efficient wing designs.

Nature-inspired aircraft wings

Moving forward, the team intends to delve deeper into the 3D configuration of the dragonfly wing to discover additional design ideas. Additionally, they expect to improve their machine learning algorithm, enhancing its forecasting abilities and boosting the precision of the artificial structure's replication.

You can view the paper for yourself in the journal Advanced Science.

Study abstract:

"This research resorts to artificial intelligence to inspire from a 2D dragonfly wing skeleton for developing an internal structure of airplane wings. It relates the thickness of the dragonfly members to the in-plane static equilibrium of forces using Maxwell reciprocal diagrams. The hybrid experimental and numerical tests suggest up to 25% improvements in the out-of-plane stiffness of the wing. More details can be found in article number 2207635 by Abdolhamid Akbarzadeh, Masoud Akbarzadeh, and co-workers. Image credit for the background: Steve Zimmerman."

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