Unlocking the Secrets of Shark Scales Could Lead to Superfast Airplanes and Drones

Wednesday, 07 February 2018 - 10:27AM
Wednesday, 07 February 2018 - 10:27AM
Unlocking the Secrets of Shark Scales Could Lead to Superfast Airplanes and Drones
< >
Image credit: YouTube

When it comes to efficient design ideas, it's hard to argue with nature.

Millions of years of evolution have their advantages, and considering that many species of sharks are almost identical to their ancestors from the time of the dinosaurs, it's safe to assume that these sea creatures enjoy a practically perfect biology that's hard to improve on.

Considering just how perfectly aerodynamic sharks are, there are a lot of lessons that can be learned from the way they move through water.

A new study from a team of scientists at Harvard University and the University of South Carolina has attempted to unlock some hidden secrets surrounding the evolutionary adaptations of one species of sharks, and the findings could help to redefine the way we approach airplane and drone design.

The shortfin mako holds the distinction of being the fastest shark species in the world. These creatures can reach speeds of up to 60 miles an hour, making them approximately as fast as cheetahs—a feat that's all the more impressive considering the fact that water resistance is a lot harder to push through than natural air (as anyone who's ever tried to run in a swimming pool can confirm).

Published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Interface, this new research into the shortfin mako attempted to look at how these animals manage to achieve such speeds, with a particular look at their aerodynamic skin, which allows them to slip effortlessly through the water with very little friction.

The findings were intriguing: apparently, the design of the tiny microscopic scales that make up the sharks' skin is indeed perfectly tailored to streamline the entire animal. Each scale is aerodynamic in its own right, as they are all tiny triangular shapes which look like little arrowheads.

The team of scientists took this shape and applied it to a 3D-printed model of a plane wing. In doing so, they were able to test the model in real life wind conditions, and they found that this particular shape is perfectly designed not just to cut through resistance, but it actually generates lift.

Apparently, part of the reason why a shark can move so fast in water is because its skin is designed to help it float better while moving at speed. Now that we understand this, engineers can use a similar technique to create planes that are able to fly with greater ease by copying the design of the shortfin mako.

As plane technology continues to advance, with new materials improving our ability to soar above the clouds, it's nice to know that we still have a lot to learn from nature, as we try our best to catch up with millions of years of evolution.