A mechanical engineer and his team have deciphered the mystery of the hummingbird: how does it hover and dart so well with such short, stubby wings? The results may well improve the aerodynamics of aircraft design, from drones to helicopters.

Most planes and choppers have long slender wings-- with a high aspect ratio- while hummingbirds have short, stubby wings. Somehow, though, the hummingbird is one of nature's most agile fliers; it can dart, hover, fly very slowly... and they never stall out. By attaching the wings of museum specimens to a spinning machine, this research team was able to figure out the mechanics and advantages of hummingbird-shaped wings: specifically, hummers are 20% more efficient than plane at low angles of attack, due to their wing structure.

Remarkably, the "ideal" aspect ratio (for avoiding catastrophic stalling at high attack angles, and for increasing efficiency) as exemplified by the hummingbird is present in most other flying species, such as bats, other birds, and insects. Over millions of years, convergent evolution produce ideal flight structures again and again.

One can't help but be reminded of a famous quote from the world of biomimicry, or design inspired by nature:

“You could look at nature as being like a catalog of products, and all of those have benefited from a 3.8 billion year research and development period. And given that level of investment, it makes sense to use it.” -Michael Pawlyn.

Many thanks to Rachel Kolb (Stanford 2012) for sending along this article. Very cool new research out of Stanford!