The growing science of biomimicry focuses on what humanity can learn from the world. Airbus is looking to launch incubation projects to see how bio-inspired insights might be further explored.

“We want to see how we can learn from the things around us to potentially resolve the issues we face,” said Lee-Ann Ramcherita, Airbus’ technowatch and innovation manager in flight physics. “Understanding how insects, birds or bats detect and respond to fluctuations in the surrounding air flow may potentially help us identify opportunities to apply on our aircraft.”

For instance, Airbus is studying the albatross. These seafaring birds can cover hundreds of kilometers with hardly a flap of their wings. Airbus engineer Tom Wilson noted that in addition to expertly utilizing air currents, the aspect ratio of an albatross’ wings – the measurement of a wing’s span divided by its chord, or width – is significantly greater than the wings of Airbus aircraft today.

Seeing the ways in which nature has solved the engineering problems that an aircraft manufacturer faces “gives us the feeling we are asking the right questions,” said Wilson.

The traditional method of helping an aircraft cut through the air is to make every surface as smooth as possible, and the study of sharks suggests that there is even more to be done. Sharks are famed for their speed through the water, but rather than being smooth, sharkskin is covered in small, tooth-like riblets.

For the past two years, certain Airbus jetliners in airline service have been fitted with small ‘riblet’ patches – textured surfaces applied to the fuselages and wings that mimic the effect of sharkskin. These test surfaces have helped to demonstrate that the sharkskin concept is highly suitable for long-range aircraft, since its drag-reducing surface is particularly effective during high-speed cruise flight.

A publicly-funded research project led by Airbus with Lufthansa Technik and Bremer Werk für Montagesysteme continues to explore the use of sharkskin-like material on aircraft. The research team recently developed a technique that allows fully automated, large-area application of a thin riblet structure to wings, and Airbus is considering the introduction of a sharkskin-like coating to the wings and horizontal tails of A350 XWB jetliners beginning in 2020.

The company’s flight physics team recently ran an event with universities to consider a variety of biomimicry applications. This includes a range of technologies: from sensors and actuation to modelling of aerodynamics.