Which movements of a flying snake should be mimicked by robots?

Published - December 31, 2022 08:45 pm IST

After designing robots that move in ways that mimic animal movements like walking and swimming, scientists are now considering how to design robots that mimic the gliding motion exhibited by flying snakes.

Researchers from the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech explored the lift production mechanism of flying snakes, which undulate side-to-side as they move from the tops of trees to the ground to escape predators or to move around quickly and efficiently (Physics of Fluids). The undulation allows snakes to glide for long distances, as much as 25 meters from a 15-meter tower.

To understand how the undulations provide lift, the investigators developed a computational model derived from data obtained through high-speed video of flying snakes. A key component of this model is the cross-sectional shape of the snake’s body, which resembles an elongated frisbee or flying disc.

The cross-sectional shape is essential for understanding how the snake can glide so far. In a frisbee, the spinning disc creates increased air pressure below the disc and suction on its top, lifting the disc into the air. To help create the same type of pressure differential across its body, the snake undulates side to side, producing a low-pressure region above its back and a high-pressure region beneath its belly. This lifts the snake and allows it to glide through the air.

“The snake’s horizontal undulation creates a series of major vortex structures, including leading edge vortices, LEV, and trailing edge vortices, TEV,” Dr. Haibo Dong of the University of Virginia said in a release. “The formation and development of the LEV on the dorsal, or back, surface of the snake body plays an important role in producing lift.”

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