You might not think tiny insects pose a problem for massive jets. But when a plane plows through a bug (which usually happens during takeoffs and landings), that bug leaves its guts behind. And over time, those guts accumulate and make the surface of the craft's wings less smooth, which creates drag. More drag means more fuel use and a less efficient plane.
So NASA and Boeing engineers are working on coatings that let planes cut right through bugs without getting sticky. In a test of five potential coatings run by the Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) Project, one reduced bug residue by 40%.
That's a pretty preliminary test -- just a bunch of takeoffs and landings out of a single airport. But developing the coatings -- 200 of them in total, which were narrowed down to five in wind tunnel experiments -- involved some pretty cool bug science.
"We learned when a bug hits and its body ruptures the blood starts undergoing some chemical changes to make it stickier," Mia Siochi, senior materials scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center, said in a statement. "That's basically the survival mechanism for the bug."
And to avoid that stickiness, they looked to something else in the natural world: Lotus leaves.
"When you look at a lotus leaf under the microscope the reason water doesn't stick to it is because it has these rough features that are pointy," added Siochi. "When liquid sits on the microscopically-rough leaf surface, the surface tension keeps it from spreading out, so it rolls off. We're trying to use that principle in combination with chemistry to prevent bugs from sticking."
There's more work to be done before Boeing can figure out a coating that can make a real difference on their jets. But one day the planes we fly -- and hey, maybe even the cars we drive -- could have way fewer bugs stuck to the windshield.