We’ve discovered a whole new way of flying, thanks to this common flower

18 Oct 2018

Image: © Kathleen Rekowski/Stock.adobe.com

It’s perhaps one of the most common flowers, but the dandelion could help us find a unique way to create drones that require no power source.

Most children will be familiar with blowing a dandelion and watching its seeds drift seemingly endlessly into the breeze. However, they probably give little thought to how the seed is actually able to travel such large distances.

This led curious researchers at the University of Edinburgh to carry out a series of experiments to better understand how the seed’s parachute structure allows it to fly, given that it is mostly made up of empty space.

Detailing its findings in Nature, the team came to the astonishing discovery that the seeds use a form of flight believed to not exist anywhere else in nature.

The key to the seeds’ ability to fly is a newly discovered air bubble – now named the separated vortex ring – which is physically detached from the bristles and stabilised by air flowing through it. It is able to float using the spacing between these bristles, precisely controlling the bubble’s shape and its position directly above the seed. The analysis showed that this flying method is incredibly efficient – up to four times more so than a conventional parachute.

Great for drones

This could have major implications for the design of small aircraft, particularly drones. If mastered, the porous parachute idea might lead to the development of drones that require little or no power consumption.

“Taking a closer look at the ingenious structures in nature – like the dandelion’s parachute – can reveal novel insights,” said Dr Cathal Cummins of the research team. “We found a natural solution for flight that minimises the material and energy costs, which can be applied to engineering of sustainable technology.”

This wasn’t the only recent study that set out to discover how things fly, with a team from Case Western Reserve University studying the electrical activity of neurons in the common flesh fly.

It was discovered that flies possess specialised sensory organs called halteres, which help them detect body rotations during flight. With their halteres removed, they can no longer maintain stability.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic