Researchers at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia are studying ways to prevent the remains of insect impacts from adhering to the wing of an aircraft in flight. The research is serious, and positive results could help NASA's aeronautical innovators achieve their goals for improving the fuel efficiency of aircraft cruising across the country.
Anyone who has driven through a cloud of insects knows how quickly the bug guts build up on the vehicle, causing problems with visibility, clogging the air intake and radiator, and ruining the car's exterior finish.
The problem for an airplane is that its aerodynamic design is meant to have air move very smoothly across the body and wing surfaces, which is called laminar flow. When there is a disruption in that laminar flow, such as from the accumulation of dead bug parts, you induce the opposite of laminar flow, which is turbulence.
The key to the solution of preventing insect residue build-up in flight is to find a non-stick coating or material of some kind that can be applied to an airplane's body and wings, and that will work with the unique chemistry present in a typical bug splat.
Not only is the intent to limit or prevent the initial adherence to the wing, but to increase the chances the bug residue will more easily erode or sheer off during the flight and leave the wing smooth again. To help them learn more about insect adhesion to materials treated with various coatings, the bug team relies on a unique desk-sized wind tunnel – the Basic Aerodynamic Research Tunnel, or BART -- equipped with tubing that connects from what they call "the bug gun."
Early tests show certain coatings can shrink the area that insect remains adhere to by 90 percent, and reduce the build-up, or height of the sticky bug guts, by 40 percent. Part of the challenge is to make sure that the solution not only works, but that it is also practical.
For example, the coating should not have to be applied before every flight as that would be too time-consuming. Long term exposure of the coating on the wing or aircraft surface should not do any damage. The coating must not add so much weight that it costs more in fuel than it saves.