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Innovation

Dragonfly wings could help determine the future of human flight

Plus: Nissan and NASA join forces.

clu/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

In technological innovation, nature can serve as pure inspiration. Today’s lead story delves deep into how scientists are working to understand the biomechanics of dragonfly wings to create fully responsive and adaptive wing designs for passenger aircraft, luxury and sports cars, and even clean energy generation.

The lessons we can take from these creatures’ specialized evolution will help us move around the world faster, more efficiently, and live through the climate crisis.

HORIZONS is a series on the innovations of today that will shape the world of tomorrow. This is an adapted version of the April 11 edition of the HORIZONS newsletter. Sign up for free.

Are flies the future of flight?

Buzz.clu/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

“Wing designs are important from F1 cars to wind turbines,” Huai-Ti Lin says. Lin is an assistant professor at Imperial College London.

“We expect bio-inspired wing sensing to play a role in the functional designs of future wings,” he adds.

Lin’s words are quoted in a statement to accompany the publication of a new paper in the journal iScience that investigates and catalogs how damselflies' and dragonflies’ mechanosensory networks — that is their multisensory perceptual system — inform how they use and morph their wings to adapt to changing flight conditions and environments.

They discovered that the eastern amberwing, scientific name Perithemis tenera, has over 3,000 wing sensors across four wings and that the blue-fronted dancer, Argia apicalis, damselfly has about 1,500 sensors.

“For a long time, we have known that all flying animals’ wings have mechanosensors and that is the same with insects, but we were surprised by the variety and sheer number of sensory neurons that exist on the wing,” Lin says.

“The next big question is what kind of information does it bring back?”

His research team could soon have an answer: They are recording neural signals coming from in-motion wings, which will elucidate how dragonflies and damselflies’ many sensors shape how they fly efficiently. Once we know how they do it, then that information can translate to new plane designs, better wind turbine blades, and smarter car bodies.

Better electric cars may be on the horizon.GraphicaArtis/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On the horizon…

Japanese car manufacturer Nissan is joining forces with NASA in pursuit of better electric-car batteries. According to a report in the Associated Press, Nissan wants to create an “all-solid-state battery” to replace the lithium-ion battery it uses now in its electric vehicles, like the Leaf.

The rare metals in the lithium-ion battery are expensive, not to mention the environmental and humanitarian costs.

Nissan and NASA will work together to create a cheaper, smaller, and faster-charging battery that does not include lithium or other rare-earth metals by 2028. They plan to launch a pilot test in 2024.

Nissan’s Corporate Vice President Kazuhiro Doi says it is a win for both parties.

“Both NASA and Nissan need the same kind of battery,” he states in the AP report, though he didn’t specify for what use.

See it to believe it…

Concept art for NASA's Transonic Truss-Braced Wing airplaneNASA

In a NASA blog post published this week on April 6, engineers describe a proposed aircraft design that could be made by the space agency and its aviation partners as they are “working towards a future that sees aviation meet cleaner sustainability standards.”

This design, replete with super-thin wings, is named the Transonic Truss-Braced Wing.

It is now being tested by scientists. The airplane was initially conceived in 2021.

“By narrowing the thickness of the wings and extending their length, drag is reduced, and 5-10 percent less fuel is burned than comparable narrowbody aircraft,” the NASA statement reads.

“Note the beautifully sleek green-blue color of the wings — the colors of Earth.” Noted!

T-minus the internet…

Would you drink “pixel” flavor cola?Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images

This is our list of everything innovative and online you need to know about this week, handpicked and ranked with bionic precision.

5. Coke’s new pixel-flavored soda does not taste good. Can you believe it?

4. Elon Musk decided at the last minute that he would not join Twitter’s board. He remains, however, the company’s biggest shareholder with a 9.2 percent stake. And Musk wasn't joking about an edit button.

3. SpinLaunch, a spaceflight startup that uses kinetic energy to launch space flights, will try to launch a NASA payload as part of a test flight later this year. SpinLaunch!

2. Greece now has a giant solar farm in the city of Kozani. Electrek reports that the 204-megawatt solar farm is “expected to generate 350 GWh of electricity capable of powering 75,000 homes annually,” and is “the biggest solar farm with bifacial panels in Europe.” “Bifacial” is a more fun way of saying “double-sided.”

1. Did you miss it? The Native American-led nonprofit Indigenized Energy Initiative wants to give underserved communities access to clean energy. The project was officially announced on November 3, 2021, and most recently, Investigate West reported on its plans to solar power 15 Northern Cheyenne tribal elders’ homes and a Northern Cheyenne high school.

Beyond the horizon…

Check out YouTuber Marques Brownlee’s informative video on “the electric car pre-order problem,” or the way EV companies like Tesla require customers to put down six-figure deposits for cars with no set release date.

“The moral of the story: Beware of these companies parading around working prototypes of electric cars while also taking pre-orders with far away delivery dates,” he says.

“The combination of these things… you should pay attention to it.”

This has been HORIZONS, a newsletter that looks at the innovations of today already shaping the world of tomorrow.

Do you think it can be improved? Have a story idea? Send your tips and all other musings to horizons@inverse.com