Learning from owls

Published: Saturday 15 May 1999

are providing scientists with tips on improving the design of the Stealth aircraft. The winged predators could provide clues to reducing noise in future aircraft. The prey of owls -- rats and mice -- have excellent hearing, so they cannot afford to fly as noisily as other birds. "The owl has to be able to fly silently to have a good dinner," says Lilley, who works at the us National Aeronautics and Space Administration's ( nasa) Langley Research Centre in Virginia, usa. The owl has feathers that are different from those of other birds. "The flight feathers of most birds have sharp, clean edges," says Gerry Carr, a biochemist at the University of Victoria in British Colombia, Canada.

"But the leading edges of the flight feathers of an owl and the wing's tailing edges are characterised by soft, feathery 'fringes' which have the effect of muffling the flow of air as it passes over the wing," said Carr. According to Jeremy Rayner, a bird flight expert at the University of Bristol, it is possible that the owl will yield secrets that engineers can use.

He said that engineers have already used bird-like designs to improve the efficiency and reduce the noise of helicopter blades.

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