11 Things Human Engineers Are Learning From Birds

istock
istock

We should really consider retiring “bird brain” as an insult: Engineers are learning a lot about efficient avian habits and applying that knowledge to how we develop aircraft and other technology. Here’s how birds are inspiring our best inventive minds to shoot for the skies. 

1. The Woodpecker as Shock Absorber 

You’re not alone if you’ve ever spotted a woodpecker bashing its beak into a tree trunk and wondered how their tiny little noggins can withstand the trauma—scientists have pondered the same thing. They discovered that certain portions of the bird’s multi-layered beak and skull are soft and absorbent, which allows them to dilute energy before any harm comes to their brains. Creating protective shields using similar designs could mean insulating space shuttles from space debris and football players from harmful impact. (They've already proven to protect delicate electronics from harm.)

2. V is for Efficiency

There’s a good reason birds tend to fly in a V-shaped formation: The lead bird can create lift that trailing friends pick up and recycle, which means they can fly for longer without getting tired. Engineers consider this a kind of surfing, and it’s helping them devise aircraft flight strategies that conserve more fuel than ever before. 

3. Building Better Flooring 

Commercial buildings need to stand up to a heavy and steady flow of foot traffic. To absorb thousands of footsteps, future floor slabs may take a cue from crow skulls, which are comprised of a series of “shell” layers connected by organic ties and struts. The end result might be a stronger, thinner surface with more structural integrity that conventional flooring. 

4. Drone On 

Drones have far-reaching uses beyond military or mail-order services: A properly equipped craft can fight forest fires or air-spot poachers. In order to perform more complex tasks, however, they’ll need to mimic a bird’s ability to navigate between—and through—obstacles like trees. With enough data, scientists hope to be able to replicate how birds’ wings fold and adapt to their environment, as well as make hairpin turns.

5. Owls May Help Reduce Aircraft Noise 

One reason owls seem (but really aren’t!) spooky is that they’re little nocturnal ninjas, moving around in silence thanks to serrated feathers on the front of the wing, tattered feathers on the back of the wing, and noise-reducing leg feathers. Planes may soon incorporate fringed wings and covered landing gear to lessen decibel levels.

6. The Ostrich Rescue 

Not all birds need to take flight to inspire robotic evolution. Because ostriches walk on two legs, they’re a perfect case study in how to navigate through obstacles and rough terrain. Bipedal robots are being developed with similar leg posture that allows for high speeds while maintaining balance. 

7. A Better Landing 

Getting drones or other small aircraft to land in an exact spot is tricky, which is why developers are fascinated by how birds are able to zero in on and perch atop extremely narrow targets. They’ve observed that flaring wings create drag, which slows descent; to copy that ability, engineers are working to develop a tail with a motor that can course-correct in a split second. Eventually, we may be able to land robots on something as narrow as a power line. 

8. The Hummingbird Helicopter 

The hummingbird’s ability to hover in one place is one of nature’s most impressive feats. While micro-helicopters can come close to their performance (despite spinning rather than flapping), engineers are evaluating the birds to see how they can better close the gap and improve rotor power by nearly 30 percent.

9. A Beak that Brings Water to Deserts 

Shore birds have beaks that can capture water droplets in a kind of clothespin movement, closing them to move water toward their throat. Researchers copied this to create a device that can harvest fog, capturing droplets as it passes through and creating water for arid areas. The hope is to design one efficient enough to produce a day’s worth of drinking water.  

10. A Quieter Bullet Train 

Japanese bullet trains move so quickly that entering a tunnel creates a phenomenon known as a “tunnel boom” as the air pressure suddenly increases. To solve the problem, engineers looked at birds that are able to dive quickly into water without disturbing it. The train’s nose was remodeled to better resemble the birds’ narrowing beaks, therein reducing air resistance and improving energy efficiency by 13 percent. 

11. The Eagle Grip 

There’s no wasted movement when an eagle plucks its prey from land or water: It swoops in with its legs pointing forward, and swings them backwards while closing in on the prey, never pausing. Drone engineers are studying that claw machine-style action so that machines can pluck objects from the ground without stopping and wasting precious energy. 

Since the early days of flight, birds have inspired how planes are engineered. Visit Boeing.com to see how birds are continuing to provide inspiration in aviation.

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11 Masks That Will Keep You Safe and Stylish

Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods
Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods

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10 Facts About Wilford Brimley

Paramount Home Entertainment
Paramount Home Entertainment

Hollywood lost one of its longtime icons on August 1, 2020, with the passing of Wilford Brimley. Some knew the 85-year-old from a storied big-screen career in films like 1993’s The Firm and 1985’s Cocoon. Others knew him as the spokesperson for Quaker Oats or as an advocate for diabetes monitoring on late-night television.

However you came to be aware of Wilford Brimley, you were probably charmed by his genial nature and hirsute facial appearance. But Brimley had a career that went beyond the screen; read on for more facts about the actor’s life, his time as a bodyguard for one of the world’s most famous men, and why he was not friendly with the man who portrayed Yoda.

1. Wilford was Wilford Brimley's middle name.

Born in Salt Lake City in 1934, Anthony Wilford Brimley moved to California with his parents when he was 6 years old. He elected to drop out of high school so that he could join the Marines. He served on the Aleutian Islands for three years before returning to civilian life as a ranch hand and horse wrangler. Those skills eventually came in handy when Westerns became a popular television genre, and Brimley often found work as an extra or background player. When he got screen billing, Brimley initially used his real first name—Anthony, or Tony—instead of his middle name, Wilford.

2. Robert Duvall got Wilford Brimley into acting.

While working as a horse-riding extra, Brimley became friendly with actor Robert Duvall (The Godfather) and was encouraged by Duvall to try his hand at more substantial parts. "He’s always been really encouraging," Brimley said of the Oscar-winning actor in 2014. “He’s always been a marvelous example of honesty and integrity.” The two appeared onscreen together in 1982’s Tender Mercies, about a country singer (Duvall) trying to reconnect with his daughter. Brimley played his agent and also met his future wife during production.

3. Wilford Brimley was a bodyguard for Howard Hughes.

Before getting work as a stuntman and actor, Brimley worked as a bodyguard for aviator-turned-recluse Howard Hughes. But the actor was always reluctant to discuss Hughes, a famously reclusive man in his later years. “He was a good guy,” Brimley once said of his former employer. The job came in part through Brimley’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Hughes reportedly preferred to employ Mormons, as he liked that they didn't smoke or drink and they rarely talked.

4. Wilford Brimley didn't train to be an actor.

Brimley’s genuine demeanor didn’t come to him through any kind of Method approach. He was never formally trained as an actor, choosing instead to draw upon his decades and self-professed lean years working various jobs (bartender, horseman) before getting a break in 1979’s The China Syndrome. “Training?” he asked a reporter rhetorically in 1984. “I’ve never been to acting classes, but I’ve had 50 years of training. My years as an extra were good background for learning about camera techniques and so forth ... basically, my method is to be honest.”

5. Wilford Brimley enjoyed mooning people.

Bryan Bedder, Getty Images

While Brimley’s onscreen presence was normally one of sedate wisdom, the actor was not averse to showing his buttocks if the timing was right. Speaking with the Chicago Tribune in 1988, actor Steve Guttenberg, Brimley’s co-star in the Cocoon movies, mentioned that Brimley sometimes mooned people on set. “The biggest fun I had on the Cocoon shoot came when Wilford Brimley would moon the audience, or the camera,” Guttenberg said. “He has a running contest with Robert Duvall to see who can moon the most people at one time. Duvall has the record [as] he drove through a town when it was having a parade and mooned 2000.”

6. Wilford Brimley surprised an elementary school class.

While shooting a film in Louisiana in 1990, Brimley struck up a friendship with Elizabeth Landman, the then-9-year-old daughter of the set’s food caterer. When Landman returned to school to tell her friends at St. Joseph’s Catholic School that she had met the man from Cocoon, no one believed her. Brimley decided to boost her credibility by visiting the school unannounced one day to sign autographs and answer questions about his career.

7. Wilford Brimley was not opposed to a cockfight.

In 1998, Brimley attended a rally in Phoenix, Arizona to oppose a statewide ban on cockfighting—an often-illegal practice that sees bettors wager on the outcome of a fight to the death between roosters equipped with razors on their feet. The actor argued that the law would be a slippery slope, one eventually leading to a ban on hunting dogs. He also said that while he lived in Utah, he visited Arizona to attend the competitions. “I’m trying to protect the lifestyle of freedom and choice for my grandchildren,” he said. The activity was eventually outlawed in Arizona in 2007.

8. Wilford Brimley was also a singer.

Though he “never made a thing about it” and proclaimed he was “not a great singer,” Brimley had a passion for covering popular music. In the 1990s, the actor performed at Los Angeles-area clubs after rehearsing with pianist Bob Smale and bassist Don Bagley for two years. He performed “My Funny Valentine,” “It Had to Be You,” and “All the Things You Are,” among other hits, and later made appearances on the Jerry Lewis telethon and the ill-fated Pat Sajak Show. He also recorded a number of albums. When Brimley agreed to hit the stage at Cal State Northridge for a jazz endowment benefit fund in 1993, Joel Leach, the school’s jazz band director, said that Brimley had a warm, rich voice. Brimley offered to do the benefit for free and even left filming of The Firm in order to appear.

9. Wilford Brimley got into a feud with Yoda.

While shooting the 1997 feature In and Out, Brimley was said to have gotten upset with director Frank Oz. Oz—a performer who operated and voiced Yoda in several Star Wars movies—told an interviewer that Brimley was one of three actors who “hate my guts.” (The other two were Marlon Brando and Cher.) Neither Oz nor Brimley ever elaborated on what transpired between the two to cause the rift.

10. Wilford Brimley was active on Twitter.

While he took only sporadic acting roles in recent years, Brimley wasn’t completely unplugged from the public. He had a verified Twitter account on which he—or an authorized representative—tweeted inspirational quotes and occasionally took note of his contemporary status as a meme source. Brimley once responded to an observation that action star Tom Cruise, who was 56 at the time, was five years older than Brimley was when he played a geriatric in Cocoon. “This is still hard for me to believe,” Brimley wrote.