October 21, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Introducing the Maple-Copter

Plants are not as stationary as one might think.  Parts of them, like seeds, can travel for miles.  One good example is the maple seed.  Its little helicopter seeds can catch an updraft and fly a long distance from the tree.  Now, engineers at University of Maryland have imitated its physics and designed a radio-controlled mono-copter that can sustain stable flight for hours.
    “Winged seeds, or samaras, such as that of the maple tree are considered some of the most efficient passive flyers, and hence have been ogled by many engineers looking to build tiny flying devices,” reported Live Science, which posted a cool video of the robot version in action.  “Since the 1950s, researchers have been trying to create a stable, unmanned aerial vehicle that could mimic a maple seed’s flight,” reporter Jeanna Bryner continued.  “But their attempts have been unsuccessful, typically because of instability.”  The new device, with its wing that looks just like its natural counterpart, can take off from the ground or be dropped from a plane and then fly laterally in controlled flight.  If it loses power, it can spiral down to the ground unharmed.  Maple seeds either drop straight down while spinning, or spin down in large helical patterns.  Placed in the right thermal, the robo-maple could spin on free wind energy for hours.
    This invention could become a cool toy some day (unfortunately, not ready for Christmas this year).  It makes an irritating buzzing noise, though, so parents might want to consider looking for a passive version that can be launched in a slingshot or something.  Because it can carry a small payload, including a video camera or transponder, engineers also envision applications for low-altitude satellites, surveillance, weather or fire monitoring, communications from the battlefield, search and rescue support, aerial mapping, and radio relays.  One thing it can’t do, though, is grow a tree.
    Science Daily shows the device fitting in the palm of a hand.  PhysOrg also reported the story with three more videos.  Some other trees, like elms, ashes and sycamores, sport winged samaras like those on maples.  See the 06/16/2009 entry about the flying efficiency of samara propellers, and the 09/22/2008 entry about seed dispersal. 

Some kid some day is going to freak out the neighbors with fake UFO sightings.  One of the videos described this project as “Inspiration – Imitation – Invention – Evolution” but the evolution was the engineers’ intelligently-guided attempts to refine their imitation of nature.  So it was intelligent design science all the way.  This invention is a great achievement by the young engineers at University of Maryland.  It only took mankind 59 years to figure out how the maple seed does it.  Hopefully this project will create more interest in the design inherent in natural forms.
They fly through the air with the greatest of ease,
Inherent design in the young maple seeds;
Their movements are graceful, to engineers please,
Poor Darwin’s been purloined away.

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