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Taking Flight

This humpback can't fly, but its fins might help us take to the skies.

© iStockphoto/adwalsh

In 2000, Walt Disney Pictures released a new edit of "Fantasia." The updated film contained several new sequences, one of which featured a pod of humpback whales that take flight to the strains of "The Pines of Rome" by Ottorino Respighi. While we're not likely to see humpback whales take to the skies, the fantastical sequence presaged an actual scientific discovery.

In May 2004, a group of scientists and engineers published a scientific paper in the Physics of Fluids journal. The team had built models of the pectoral flippers on a humpback whale. On one model they included tubercles -- the bumps you'd find on an actual whale's flipper. On another model they used a smooth surface.

They tested both models in a wind tunnel at the U.S. Naval Academy. Their tests showed that the flipper with the tubercles saw an 8 percent improvement in lift. In addition, the flipper was less likely to experience stall at steep wind angles and created up to 32 percent less drag.

Could we soon see airplanes with bumpy wings? It's entirely possible. The team's findings suggest that nature has created an efficient device for moving through fluid environments. It might be foolish not to take advantage of these discoveries.

There are hundreds of other examples of how nature has guided technological development throughout human history. So the next time you need to solve a complex technical issue, you might just want to take a look in your own back yard first.

Learn more about technology and nature on the next page.

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