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Aviation industry learns from nature

  • Airline industry has long looked to natural world for inspiration
  • An aviation research company is mimicking a dragonfly to develop a drone aircraft
  • Advances in technology mean that closer biomimicry is possible

(CNN) -- "The largest bird on Earth that can fly weighs 15kg", said Michel de Gliniasty, Scientific Director at ONERA the French Aerospace Lab. "A condor, and it is something like less than four meters in wingspan."

"That is small compared to the airbus A380, which is 80m in span, and 500 tonnes in weight. So, nature is small."

Gliniasty was talking to CNN about biomimicry, during a recent Earth's Frontiers shoot. We went to France to see how developments in aviation and flying machines there are being inspired by the natural world.

"Most of human inventions come from the observation of nature. This is true for flight," said Gliniasty.

Video: Biomimicry in flight

Michel de Gliniasty's team are working on drone technology. They are hoping that they can create unmanned devices which can move through the air like a dragonfly. Biomimicry is a new way of talking about how we can learn from nature to solve our modern problems. Scientists and engineers around the world are increasingly asking: what would nature do?

Gliniasty was explaining how complicated it is to replicate the hundreds of little details and functions inside a living creature. But ONERA, along with others in France and throughout the world, are trying to do just that. ONERA opted for a dragonfly -- one of the largest insects on the planet.

"When you think flight, you think immediately birds," Gliniasty said. "The structure of the wings is really complex. You have muscles everywhere, you have the feathers which can be moved."

"We thought that it is better to try to mimic insects. Because when you look at the wing of an insect, the wing is nearly inert. All the living parts are within the thorax, and this is much easier to handle."

When finished, these machines will be used for defence purposes, as well as helping out humans in tricky situations.

"You can use these small drones to move in places where humans cannot go because it's toxic, or it's dangerous. Or if the drones are small enough, you can use them in small ducts."

The French aviation company Dassault took their lead from eagles, when designing their latest business jet, the Falcon 7X. And for aviation engineer Oliver Caldara, it was the motion of birds in flight which inspired him to design a new, more efficient, type of paraglider.

Gliniasty is very optimistic about the possibilities for this area of research: "You cannot really reproduce nature, but there is one thing you can do. It is to try to reproduce some natural phenomena with human technologies. And for me biomimicry is exactly that. You reproduce natural phenomena, but with human technology."


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