Penguin Rockets – Shoulder to Shoulder with Science

Penguins01I love penguins, as I’m sure many of you do too, so when I saw an article on Science Daily about new technology being developed based on the underwater movement of penguins, I was intrigued. When we look at penguins on land, they waddle around and teeter totter in a rather uninspiring manner.

However, once in the water, they rev up and take off with astonishing agility and ease. That’s the motion scientists are currently trying to capture because even after all this time, science doesn’t fully understand how penguins move in water. It has been noted that penguins turn into veritable rockets accelerating from 0-7 m/s (meters per second) in under a second.

Penguins02Flavio Noca, a professor of aerodynamics at the University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland (hepia) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) has undertaken the challenge to figure out how to harness the rocket-inspired propulsion of penguins and then turn that technology into useful human applications.

My first thought was that the propulsion must come from their feet because their wings look so stiff on land. However in the water, it seems that the opposite is true. The scientists are studying the movement of the penguins’ wings.

PenguinJointSo far they have created a device with a spherical joint like the penguin’s wing. This joint allows for 3 degrees of freedom amidst a fixed center of rotation. If it’s starting to sound like physics, you’re right. That’s exactly what it is.

According to Noca, “Unlike an animal shoulder joint, however, this spherical joint enables unlimited rotational range about the main shaft axis, like a propeller.”

From there the article goes heavily into the physics of the movement, someplace I’m not willing to go, because although I was a very good student, my maths let me down, and physics is all math. I’ll have to take his word for it.

Noca adds, “By accurately reproducing an actual penguin-wing movement, we hope to shed light on the swimming mysteries of these underwater rockets.”

I’m always excited when science learns tips, tricks, and techniques from the natural world. It only further highlights what a wonderful and fantastical world we live in.

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(Please excuse the gratuitously cute penguin photos – I couldn’t help myself.)

Til the next time!

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