Spiraling flight of maple tree seeds inspires new aerial surveillance technology

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Maple tree seeds (or samara fruit) and the spiraling pattern in which they glide to the ground have delighted children for ages and perplexed engineers for decades. Now aerospace engineering graduate students at the University of Maryland’s Clark School of Engineering have learned how to apply the seeds’ unique design to aerial devices that can fly, hover and perform surveillance in defense and emergency situations.

In the 1950s, researchers first tried to create an unmanned aerial vehicle that could mimic a maple seed’s spiraling fall. Ever since, their attempts have been foiled by instability, resulting in a lack of control over the tiny (less than one meter) vehicles, which were easily knocked off course by wind. As recently as June 2009, this was considered as an open challenge for engineers.

The Clark School students have solved the steering problem and provided a solution that allows the device to take off from the ground and hover, as well as perform controlled flight after its initial fall to the ground after being deployed from an aircraft. The device can also begin to hover during its initial descent, or after being launched by hand.

The students studied maple seeds and developed a new design incorporating the natural flight of the tiny flyers. The insight gleaned from this study enabled the creation of the world’s smallest controllable single-winged rotorcraft. The maple seed-inspired design is valuable because when dropped, unpowered, from a plane and then controlled remotely, it can perform surveillance maneuvers for defense, fire monitoring and search-and-rescue purposes.

“Natural maple seeds usually trade off altitude for rotation as they fall to the ground,” said Evan Ulrich, one of the graduate students on the team. This altitude-rotation trade-off results in the power that the seeds need to travel.

But this traditional design does not provide enough power to allow the device to hover.

Ulrich and other graduate students in the research group led by Clark School Dean Darryll Pines (Professor, Department of Aerospace Engineering) incorporated a new part to their device, a curved, comma-shaped component in the body of the device, which provides more stability and gives the device power to hover. They have two patents pending on their innovation.

See flight and development videos of device at Web release:
http://www.eng.umd.edu/media/pressreleases/pr101909_mapleseed.html

Part of the solution to controlling flight was to physically separate the problem of propulsion and stability. The wing of the vehicle is designed to function in the same way as natural samara and performs a stable autorotation during descent. The propulsive section of the vehicle functions like the tail rotor on a helicopter, though instead of preventing rotation, (as in the case of a helicopter), it maintains rotation (to allow it to hover).

The Clark School researchers made use of research and testing techniques developed at the school’s Alfred Gessow Rotorcraft Center to develop the maple seed-inspired device. The aerodynamic and geometric properties of natural samara were studied in detail. The insight gleaned from this study enabled the creation of the world’s smallest controllable single-winged rotorcraft.

The vehicle has been demonstrated at University of Maryland events, the American Helicopter Society Annual Forum, the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum, and at the 100th anniversary of the College Park airport.

More Information

Project Web Site: http://www.avl.umd.edu/projects/proj9-robotic-samara.html

Office of Technology Commercialization Project Patent and Licensing Information:
http://www.otc.umd.edu/umotc/Technology.php?recid=3623

Upcoming Demonstration Event:
Evan Ulrich will be demonstrating the flyer at:

“Air and Scare” (http://www.nasm.si.edu/airandscare/activites.htm)

National Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center

Oct. 24 from 2-8 p.m.

About the A. James Clark School of Engineering

The Clark School of Engineering, situated on the rolling, 1,500-acre University of Maryland campus in College Park, Md., is one of the premier engineering schools in the U.S.

The Clark School’s graduate programs are collectively the fastest rising in the nation. In U.S. News & World Report’s annual rating of graduate programs, the school is 17th among public and private programs nationally, 9th among public programs nationally and first among public programs in the mid-Atlantic region. The School offers 13 graduate programs and 12 undergraduate programs, including degree and certification programs tailored for working professionals.

The school is home to one of the most vibrant research programs in the country. With major emphasis in key areas such as communications and networking, nanotechnology, bioengineering, reliability engineering, project management, intelligent transportation systems and space robotics, as well as electronic packaging and smart small systems and materials, the Clark School is leading the way toward the next generations of engineering advances.

Visit the Clark School homepage at www.eng.umd.edu.

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