Pentagon funds flying snakes

The United States Department of Defense has put money into airborne snake research. But sadly it doesn’t involve hiring Samuel L. Jackson to help train the Air Force against unexpected passengers.

Instead the funding, which comes from the DoDs Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (which is known for backing some pretty unusual research), went to Jake Socha of Virginia Tech. He’s been working on a mathematical model to explain why five different species of snakes in South Asia are able to stay airborne when leaping between treetops as far as 79 feet apart.

The snakes, from the genus Chrysopelea, are among the few (if not the only) creatures to fly without either wings or a similar body part. It turns out the answer to the puzzle is fairly simple: the entire snake’s body acts as if it were a single wing.

The movement is closer to gliding that full-scale flying, but combines elements of the two. Through a combination of the body flattening out and then adjusting itself to a suitable angle, the snakes are able to create a situation where the aerodynamic force is stronger than gravity, meaning the snakes actually move upwards immediately after “launch.”

This effect quickly wears off, and there’s never actually a point where the two forces are equal and the snake is gliding horizontally. Instead it quickly switches to downwards gliding which is why, over any distance of note, the “flying” has to be from a taller tree to a shorter one.

According to Socha, the scientific principle of what the snake is doing is perfectly normal: what’s unexpected is the ratio of the two forces and thus the impressive aerodynamic performance.

As for what DARPA hopes to get from the work, officials are remaining tight-lipped. One theory is that it could be used to give insight into possible designs for unmanned airborne vehicles that would require less power.

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