by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition, and Honorary Chair, Quiet American Skies

Yes, indeed, humans can learn from other species. Sometimes, we forget this, but Manasee Wagh in her article “Why Owls Are a ‘Spirit Animal’ for Engineers Building Quieter Aircraft” reminds us that when it comes to sound, we can learn from owls who are both “silent and agile.” At Xi’an Jiaotong University in China, researchers are using owl wing design to assist them in developing quieter turbomachinery blades. In simpler terms, scientists are studying the way owls use their wings to fly more quietly to create quieter aircraft, vehicles, drones, and wind turbines.

Interestingly, night owls produce about 18 decibels less sound than other birds at the same speeds. This, the scientists explain, is largely due to the “unique wing formation.” We also learn in this article that the Wright Brothers used the owl wing shapes in their airplane design with respect to getting off the ground. Apparently, the owl has been a major source of inspiration for the aviation industry. More information about the research on owl wings and sound can be found in a paper published in the Journal of Physics of Fluids last year.

While we learn that the design of rotating turbomachinery has improved so that wind turbine noise has been somewhat reduced, the “noise reduction technology is still at a bottleneck,” according to Xiaomin Liu, one of the researchers in this area. Thus, Liu and his associates are continuing their research by testing out different designs using computer simulations. Other scientists are carrying out similar studies. Justin Jaworski, a mechanical engineer at Lehigh University. tells us that the natural flight of the owl is still a mystery as to why it is so quiet.

Hopefully, the owl will continue to serve as an inspiration to the design of quieter aircraft, vehicles, and wind turbines, as many people are depending on this.