Limitations of modeling the wake around bird wings

Estimating lift from the flow around flapping wings is critical for studying bird flight. To test existing lift theories, we measured the flow around a parrotlet’s wing as it flew between two perches. We found that three popular theories gave mixed predictions for lift, suggesting that the lift over flapping wings is more complex than previously thought. (This work is from PI Quinn’s research prior to the SFS Lab and is archived here for reference.)


Authors: Eric Gutierrez, Daniel Quinn, Diana Chin, David Lentink

Abstract: There are three common methods for calculating the lift generated by a flying animal based on the measured airflow in the wake. However, these methods might not be accurate according to computational and robot-based studies of flapping wings. Here we test this hypothesis for the first time for a slowly flying Pacific parrotlet in still air using stereo particle image velocimetry recorded at 1000 Hz. The bird was trained to fly between two perches through a laser sheet wearing laser safety goggles. We found that the wingtip vortices generated during mid-downstroke advected down and broke up quickly, contradicting the frozen turbulence hypothesis typically assumed in animal flight experiments. The quasi-steady lift at mid-downstroke was estimated based on the velocity field by applying the widely used Kutta–Joukowski theorem, vortex ring model, and actuator disk model. The calculated lift was found to be sensitive to the applied model and its different parameters, including vortex span and distance between the bird and laser sheet—rendering these three accepted ways of calculating weight support inconsistent. The three models predict different aerodynamic force values mid-downstroke compared to independent direct measurements with an aerodynamic force platform that we had available for the same species flying over a similar distance. Whereas the lift predictions of the Kutta–Joukowski theorem and the vortex ring model stayed relatively constant despite vortex breakdown, their values were too low. In contrast, the actuator disk model predicted lift reasonably accurately before vortex breakdown, but predicted almost no lift during and after vortex breakdown. Some of these limitations might be better understood, and partially reconciled, if future animal flight studies report lift calculations based on all three quasi-steady lift models instead. This would also enable much needed meta studies of animal flight to derive bioinspired design principles for quasi- steady lift generation with flapping wings.

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