The Michigan Engineer News Center

Aerospace Professor Dan Inman receives a National Science Foundation grant for development of avian inspired morphing aircraft

Aerospace Professor Dan Inman receives a National Science Foundation grant to continue his research into avian inspired morphing aircraft. | Long Read
EnlargeProfessor Inman touches a model of a bird
IMAGE:  Dan Inman, Harm Buning Collegiate Professor of Aerospace Engineering, explains how a model of an airplane wing changes its shape using materials that react to electrical current. Photo: Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering

The Aerospace Department congratulates Professor Dan Inman, Ham Bunning Collegiate Professor and his team at the Adaptive Intelligent Multifunctional Structures (AIMS) Lab who received a grant to continue their research into and development of avian inspired morphing aircraft. The multidisciplinary project also included Michigan Professor Henry Sodano, who researches advanced aerospace materials, and Professor Bret Tobalske, a biologist at the University of Montana.

Professor Inman has been interested in morphing aircraft – aircraft that can change their wing shape in response to their environment –  since 1999, and in 2011 began to incorporate avian flight into his research.“Birds make really unique motions when they glide,” says the Professor. The ability to bend their wings gives birds increased stability in aerodynamic disturbances such as gusts of wind or other unpredictable air currents. Passive control from the deflection of birds’ feathers is an energy efficient method of maintaining stability during flight and allows birds to fly in environments like city streets, where gusts of wind make traditional UAVs unusable. 

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IMAGE:  Aircraft design for avian inspired morphing

In 2016, Prof. Inman and his team demonstrated that wings that mimicked bird motion did provide aerodynamic advantage. For that innovation, they received a Basic Research Initiative grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research that incorporated research from England, Canada, Austria, and Italy spanning the disciplines of material science, biology, and aerospace. The wing phase culminated in the development of a wing that morphed in response to changing air flows, which will be demonstrated by Prof. Inman at Stanford later this year. 

The Michigan team has since incorporated computing into their research. They received a second Air Force Office of Scientific Research grant last summer toward efforts to reduce delay between aerodynamic disturbance and response using neuromorphic computing inspired by brain networks. 

The most recent grant is for research into feather-like appendages added to the morphing wing. The 3D printed structures are designed to deflect in response to a gust of wind and so provide the same rapid response passive control as a bird’s feathers. The resulting wing will be much more aerodynamically stable than a traditional fixed wing.

The work done by Professor Inman and his team is laying the groundwork for a new generation of advanced UAVs with versatile applications including monitoring fires, delivering rescue supplies, and performing search and rescue. New environments will be accessible to UAVS, including urban streets where the potential uses for UAVs are booming. Again, the Aerospace Department congratulates Inman and his team on their innovations into avian-inspired flight vehicles and the newest grant towards their research. 

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IMAGE:  Feather inspired wiffling wing actuator developed by Prof. Inman's team at AIMS Lab

The most recent grant is for research into feather-like appendages added to the morphing wing. The 3D printed structures are designed to deflect in response to a gust of wind and so provide the same rapid response passive control as a bird’s feathers. The resulting wing will be much more aerodynamically stable than a traditional fixed wing.

The work done by Professor Inman and his team is laying the groundwork for a new generation of advanced UAVs with versatile applications including monitoring fires, delivering rescue supplies, and performing search and rescue. New environments will be accessible to UAVS, including urban streets where the potential uses for UAVs are booming. Again, the Aerospace Department congratulates Inman and his team on their innovations into avian-inspired flight vehicles and the newest grant towards their research. 

Professor Inman touches a model of a bird
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Kimberly Johnson
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Aerospace Engineering

(734) 647-4701

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