Wind tunnels for hummingbirds, X-ray images of turtle doves and lovebirds wearing pilot’s goggles. David Lentink calculates how birds fly using the most advanced technology. Lentink is one of the keynote speakers of science week LIFE.
In Lentink’s view, we have a lot to learn from his hummingbirds. ‘Birds are able to do things that planes cannot. This seems surprising, because travelling by air has become completely normal,’ says the Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. ‘But birds are constantly changing the shape of their wings and are as a result extremely agile. Aircrafts are by contrast very cumbersome and mechanical.’
Lentink’s work is an example of biomimicry: imitating nature with the aim of inventing or improving uses for humans. We are already doing this here and there. At the start of the 1950s, the Swiss inventor George de Mestral studied how burdock burrs became entangled in his dog’s coat, and the result was Velcro. How the eyes of animals work is being investigated for use in designing cameras and image recognition.
Lentink’s aim is to improve aviation technology. This will not necessarily lead to eco-friendlier flying of its own accord. ‘If you have to add a complex component to all aircrafts, that will of course use up natural resources,’ he says. Lentink’s main concern is developing new skills, such as being able to fly without difficulty through turbulence. Birds are much less affected by turbulence as a result of having an organ of balance (vestibular system), a brain and a visual system that help them to predict how to adjust their wings for keeping balance. ‘I want to know how they do this,’ Lentink says.
Observation is the point of departure for Lentink, but being able to measure is more important than observing and photographing. ‘I’ve developed equipment for measuring the force of the wings. Using X-ray radiation, we look at the movements of the skeleton during flight. We train lovebirds to fly with special light-weight goggles. The goggles enable us to measure the movement of their heads.’
What is life?
Lentink will be presenting his work on imitating nature for human application on 13 March during science week LIFE. He makes use of impressive visual material from his own research and talks about the possibilities.
Questions about life are at the centre of the three-day event. WUR students and staff are welcome to join the symposia being held every afternoon - to watch, listen, contribute ideas and to discuss. Admission is free, dinners on 13 and 14 March are included.