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J Morphol. 2002 Apr;252(1):52-81.

Structure, form, and function of flight in engineering and the living world.

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Department of Zoology, Göteborg University, Göteborg, Sweden.


By combining appearance and behavior in animals with physical laws, we can get an understanding of the adaptation and evolution of various structures and forms. Comparisons can be made between animal bodies and various technical constructions. Technical science and theory during the latest decades have resulted in considerable insight into biological adaptations, but studies on structures, forms, organs, systems, and processes in the living world, used in the right way, have also aided the engineer in finding wider and better solutions to various problems, among them in the design of micro-air vehicles (MAVs). In this review, I discuss the basis for flight and give some examples of where flight engineering and nature have evolved similar solutions. In most cases technology has produced more advanced structures, but sometimes animals are superior. I include how different animals have solved the problem of producing lift, how animal wings meet the requirements of strength and rigidity, how wing forms are adapted to various flight modes, and how flight kinematics are related to flight behavior and speed. The dynamics of vorticity is summarized. There are a variety of methods for the determination of flight power; it has been estimated adequately by lifting-line theory, by physiological measurements, and from mass loss and food intake. In recent years alternative methods have been used, in which the mechanical power for flight is estimated from flight muscle force used during the downstroke. Refinements of these methods may create new ways of estimating flight power more accurately. MAVs operate at the same Reynolds numbers as large insects and small birds and bats. Therefore, studies on animal flight are valuable for MAV design, which is discussed here.

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