Computational Analysis of Straight and Maneuvering Bat Flight Aerodynamics

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Virginia Tech

Bats have many impressive flight characteristics such as the ability to rapidly change direction, carry substantial loads, and maintain good flight efficiency. For several years, researchers have been working towards an understanding of the specific aerodynamic phenomena which relate the unique wing structure of bats to their flight abilities. Computational fluid dynamics, a powerful tool used extensively across aerospace research, has led to substantial progress in the understanding of insect flight. However, due to technical challenges, numerical simulation has seen limited use in bat flight research. For this research, we develop, validate, and apply computational modeling techniques to three modes of bat flight: straight flight, sweeping turn, and U-turn maneuver. 3D kinematic data collection was achieved using a 28 camera multi-perspective optical motion capture system. The calibration of the cameras was conducted using a multi-camera self-calibration method. Point correspondences between cameras and frames was achieved using a human-supervised software package developed for this project.

After the collection of kinematic data, we carried out aerodynamic flow simulations using the incompressible Navier-Stokes solver, GenIDLEST. The immersed boundary method (IBM) was used to impose moving boundary conditions representing the wing kinematics. Validation of the computational model was preformed through a grid independence study as well as careful evaluation of other relevant simulation parameters. Verification of the model was performed by comparing simulated aerodynamic loads to the expected loads based on the observed flight trajectories. Additionally, we established that we had a sufficient resolution of the wing kinematics, by calculating the sensitivity of the simulation results to the number of kinematic markers used during motion capture.

For this study, three particular flights are analyzed—a straight and level flight, a sweeping turn, and a sharp 180 degree turn. During straight flight, typical flight velocities observed in the flight tunnel were 2-3 m/s resulting in a Reynolds number of about 12,000. Lift generation occurred almost exclusively during the downstroke, and peaks mid-downstroke. At the beginning of each downstroke, the effective angle of attack of the wings transitions from negative to positive and a leading edge vortex (LEV) quickly forms. LEVs are known to augment lift generation in flapping flight and allow lift to remain high at large angles of attack. During the end of each downstroke, the LEVs break up and lift drops substantially. As the wingbeat cycle transitions from downstroke to upstroke, the wings rotate such that the wing chordline is vertical as the wing moves upward. This wing rotation is critical for mitigating negative lift during the upstroke.

Many of the basic flight mechanisms used for straight flight—i.e. LEV formation, wing rotation during upstrokes—were also observed during the sweeping turn. In addition, asymmetries in the wing kinematics and consequently the aerodynamics were observed. Early in the turn, the bank angle was low and elevated levels of thrust were generated by the outer wing during both the upstroke and downstroke causing a yaw moment. As the bat moved towards the middle of the turn, the bank angle increased to 20-25 degrees. Although the bank angle remained nominally constant during the middle and later portion of the turn, there was variation within each wingbeat cycle. Specifically, the bank angle dropped during each upstroke and subsequently was recovered during each downstroke as a consequence of elevated lift on the outer wing. Banking served to redirect the net force vector laterally causing a radial, centripetal force. Considering the mass of the bat, the nominal flight velocity, and the radius of curvature, the magnitude of the radial force fully explained the expected centripetal acceleration during the middle and later portion of the turn. Over the entire turn, yaw was found to be important in initiating the turn while banking was more important during the middle part of the turn. Over the course of 5 wingbeat cycles, the change in bearing angle (direction of flight) was about 45 degrees.

Analysis of the U-turn flight showed many of the same characteristics as were observed during the sweeping turn, as well as a few key differences. The bat's ability to rotate its body rapidly appears to be more limited than its ability to change its trajectory. For this reason, the yaw rotation began about one to two cycles before the rapid bearing angle change and was stretched out over several wingbeat cycles. At the apex of the U-turn, the bat combined a high roll angle with a low flight velocity magnitude to very rapidly redirect its bearing direction and negotiate a low radius of curvature flight trajectory. Increases in roll angle occurred almost exclusively during the downstrokes, while both the upstroke and downstroke were active in generating yaw. Elevated thrust on the left outer wing during the end of the upstroke was observed throughout the flight, and elevated drag on the right inside wing did not appear to have an impact on the turn.

We hope that this project motivates and facilitates further computational analysis into bat flight aerodynamics. Additionally, the data and findings will be useful for applications such as the design of bioinspired MAVs or flexible membrane energy harvesting technology.

bat flight, bat maneuvering, unsteady aerodynamics, motion capture, computational fluid dynamics, flapping flight, animal flight