Designing a Boeing 777 with dragonfly wings to make it stronger, lighter, and more environmentally friendly


by University of Pennsylvania’s Nathi Magubane

Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain is credited.

Humans have long studied and drawn inspiration from a variety of natural phenomena to enhance the effectiveness, stability, and maneuverability of flight. Furthermore, nature-inspired design—also referred to as biomimicry or bio-inspired design—has contributed significantly to the advancement of flight from the time of Leonardo da Vinci.

Now, Masoud Akbarzadeh of the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design and his former doctoral student Hao Zheng expand on the concepts of biomimicry by redesigning the wing of a Boeing 777 by taking cues from the wing of a dragonfly, as reported in a research published in Advanced Science.

What makes a dragonfly?

Akbarzadeh claims that “nature’s a great teacher in telling us how to optimize systems.” And when you examine a dragonfly, you’ll notice that its wings have developed over millions of years into an extraordinarily strong, light, and efficient structure.

“When we looked closely at the patterns on a dragonfly’s wing, we realized that it includes many convex polygons,”Akbarzadeh explains.

“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 states. “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?’”

breaking down the wing
The researchers used a technique called Maxwell’s reciprocal diagrams, which was first suggested by James Clerk Maxwell in 1864, to examine the intricate geometric vein network of the dragonfly wing. This analysis method, which determines a system’s force equilibrium, was crucial in deciphering the physics of the dragonfly 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 explains. “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.”

“This was shocking,” according to him, “because the wing is designed for bending behavior associated with flapping movements rather than a tension-only or compression-only network.”

This discovery allowed the researchers to study the behavior of the wing structure that the structural pattern of the wing mimics. “Eventually, we showed that this approach could result in more efficient wing structures against out-of-plane bending,” explains Akbarzadeh.

Machine learning inspired by nature

The researchers divided the geometry of the wing into the outside margins and the inside vascular network. With it, they were able to map out the possible effects of the other components on the internal structures within the dragonfly’s wing.

“We used the form and force diagrams of the dragonfly wing as a training data set to develop our machine learning model that could generate structural networks that closely mirrored the actual geometry of the wing,” Akbarzadeh explains.

The discovery offered useful information for their machine-learning algorithm’s training.

“Imagine an airplane wing designed following the principles observed in a dragonfly wing,” adds Akbarzadeh. “By doing so, we could potentially create lighter, more efficient airplanes, using fewer materials, leading to considerable savings in fuel and costs, not to mention a substantial reduction in aviation’s environmental footprint.”

Bringing theory to life

By integrating dragonfly-inspired designs into a 2D extruded airframe of a Boeing 777 wing at a 1:120 scale, the team members applied their findings to practical situations and saw a notable increase in the wings’ structural efficiency.

With an astounding 25% improvement in out-of-plane stiffness, the dragonfly design raises the possibility of lighter, more effective wing designs.

“This not only affirms the practicality of the research but also offers a tantalizing glimpse into the future of aviation,” Akbarzadeh states.

Taking off into the future

In order to find more creative inspiration, the team intends to delve further into the 3D structure of the dragonfly wing in the future. They also hope to improve the predictive power of their machine learning model and raise the accuracy of the artificial structure’s replication.

“This study shines a spotlight on the untapped potential of nature-inspired design,” Akbarzadeh states. “Through the synergistic fusion of machine learning, structural biology, and engineering, a new frontier is emerging, one that promises a wave of innovation across various engineering disciplines.”

“Who knows what other mysteries we might discover as we keep looking deeper for inspiration within the complex natural world structures? Our exploration of flying creatures, from dragonflies to other species, is just getting started.”

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