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Bruno A. Roccia, Sergio Preidikman, and Fernando G.

Flores
Numerical
study of the unsteady aerodynamics
of rotating seeds

Abstract—Over millions of years of evolution, most of plants
have developed specific mechanisms that allows them to increase
its population spread: their fruits or seeds may have “organs”
that enable them to generate enough lift to stay aloft, for a
while, as they fall. Those seeds describing a rotational motion,
called samaras, are perhaps the most simple, stable and efficient
flying devices designed by nature. In this paper, we present a
well-suited numerical tool for studying the aerodynamics of
rotating seeds. The proposed simulation framework is based on a
modified version of the well-known unsteady vortex-lattice
method (UVLM) coupled with a kinematics model previously
developed by the authors of this paper. In order to test the
computational code, validate the aerodynamic model and set
limitations of the model, we successfully reproduced a classic
well-documented problem: a two-blade rotor in hover. Finally,
we present numerical results related to the aerodynamics of a
rotating seed in its descending phase.
Resumen—A lo largo de millones de años de evolución, ciertas
especies vegetales han desarrollado estrategias de diseminación
para aumentar su población: sus frutos o semillas poseen
“órganos” que les permiten generar suficiente fuerza de
sustentación como para mantenerse en vuelo durante un
razonable período de tiempo mientras caen. Las semillas que al
caer ejecutan un movimiento de autorrotación son llamadas
sámaras y son, quizás, las “aviadoras” más simples, estables y
eficientes que la naturaleza ha creado. En este trabajo se
presenta el desarrollo de una herramienta de simulación
numérica que permite estudiar la aerodinámica asociada al
movimiento de autorrotación exhibido por las sámaras. El
modelo aerodinámico utilizado está basado en una versión
modificada del método de red de vórtices no lineal e
inestacionario (UVLM). El movimiento del apéndice a modo de
ala (esto es, la superficie sustentadora) de la semilla
autorrotante se describe utilizando un modelo cinemático
desarrollado con anterioridad por los autores de este trabajo.
Con el fin de verificar el código computacional desarrollado,
validar la utilización del modelo aerodinámico adoptado y
determinar sus límites, en lo que concierne a su aplicación al
estudio de semillas autorrotantes, se reprodujo un problema muy
bien documentado en la literatura: el referido a un rotor en
vuelo suspendido (hovering) que alcanza el estado estacionario.
En la parte final de este trabajo, como caso de estudio, se
presentan resultados numéricos concernientes a la aerodinámica
de la semilla rotante de arce.
Index Terms— flying seeds, samaras, autorotation, aerodynamics,
UVLM.

I. IINTRODUCTION

n recent decades, different research groups around the world
have addressed the difficult task to study and understand the
subjacent physics that characterizes the flight at small scales.
Despite constant advances in this area, many of they
attributed to Dickinson’s team and the Group of Animal
Flight led by Ellington, there are still many questions without

a final answer [1]. The development of micro-air-vehicles
(MAVs) with similar capabilities to those showed by flying
creatures is, nowadays, a very active research area. An
alternative to MAV-like flapping wings is based on the
simplicity with which almost all plants and trees disperse
their seeds over large distances [2],[3]. Among the dispersal
modes exhibited by seeds and flying fruits, the most
interesting one, from an engineering point of view, is the
spinning flight [4]. The seeds that execute a rotary motion as
they descend to the ground are known as samaras, and are
perhaps, the most simple, stable and efficient “fliers”
conceived by nature. Moreover, this kind of flight is an
example of elegance and balance; where gravitational
potential energy becomes into rotational kinetic energy
perpetuating an aerodynamically stable helical descent.
Early studies related to rotating seeds date back to the 50s
and were oriented to analyze the autorotation mechanism.
Subsequently, several works about morphological features
(e.g., roughness, airfoil shape, mass center, etc) of samaras
were published [5],[6].
On aerodynamics, Isaac Newton was the first to describe
the falling free motion of a body immersed in a fluid medium.
However, it was Maxwell, in 1854, who led the first
systematic study about the autorotation mechanism [7]. In
spite of the early Maxwell’s work, it was not until the second
half of the 20th century that the autorotation phenomenon
caught the attention of the scientific community [8]-[11].
Later, Lentink et al. [12] used a dynamically scaled model of
a maple seed in order to study the three-dimensional flow
around it. They found the presence of a leading-edge vortex
(LEV) as one of the main mechanisms of lift production.
Lentink’s team pointed out that: the LEV is a convergent
solution in the context of natural flight, both in animals and
insects as well as in plants. Varshney et al. [13] studied
another phenomenon, poorly understood, related to the flight
of samaras; the transition phase from rest to steady gyration
motion.
From a numerical point of view, Andronov et al. [14] and
Mittal et al. [15] has been carried out dynamic and
aerodynamic studies on flat-plates undergoing an autorotation
motion. Despite these efforts, there are still several questions
related to the aerodynamic/dynamic behavior of these flying
structures.
In this paper, we present an enlarged version of the
unsteady vortex-lattice method for the study of nonlinear
aerodynamics of rotating seeds. The aerodynamic model takes
into account all possible aerodynamic interferences and
allows us to predict: i) the flowfield around the samara’s
wing; ii) the spatial-temporal vorticity distribution attached to
the seed; iii) the vorticity distribution in the wakes emitted
from the sharp edges; iv) the position and shape of these
wakes; and v) the unsteady loads acting on the samara’s
blade.

The orientation of the body fixed frame. The sequence utilized is a 3–2–1 defined by: i) the angle. In Table I. bˆ . nˆ 3 is a unitary vector parallel to a vertical line. (1) where R0 is the position vector of the origin of frame B. and it can execute any type of maneuver in the space surrounded by moving air. which is valid in the whole irrotational and incompressible fluid domain (outside of the boundary layers and the wakes). we present the values concerning to the main morphological and kinematical parameters for the maple seed adopted as study case. Part of this vorticity is shed from the sharp edges and forms the wakes. Ω. i. commonly. αg. x is the position vector and t is time. KINEMATIC MODEL The computational model adopted in this work to study the aerodynamics of rotating seeds is based on the maple seed (griseum pax) morphology [6].7º 1. the nut and the blade of the seed. The flow around the full body. nˆ 2 . TABLE I MORPHOLOGICAL AND KINEMATICAL PARAMETERS FOR THE GRISEUM PAX  2  x. and iii) the geometric angle of attack. Ωt. two: i) a Newtonian or inertial frame N   nˆ 1 . In the fluid domain the vorticity . b) computational model built in MATLAB. vorticity is generated in a thin region surrounding the surface of the body (the boundary layer).To the best of the authors’ knowledge. the surfaces that define the nut as well as the blade (lifting surface) of the seed were discretized by using simple quadrilateral elements with four nodes (see Fig. Spatial geometry of seed. R P  R 0  r. 1). r is a the vector position fixed to the body frame B. B.62 cm 4.33 0. Fig. nˆ 3  . bˆ . we used an enlarged and modified version of the general method known as unsteady vortex-lattice method. 1. This method can be applied to three-dimensional lifting and non-lifting flows. the reader may consult [16]. ˆ 3 r VP  VD nω . Fig.17º (1) where ψ (x. and ω is a skew-symmetric tensor associated with the axial vector ω   nˆ 3 . generated by the constant angular velocity associated to the rotational motion of the seed. 2. AERODYNAMIC MODEL In this work. ii) the cone angle.82 m/seg 23. and ii) a body fixed frame located at the rotation center (RC) of the seed and denoted by B  bˆ .e. Kinematics of a maple seed while descending.t) is the velocity potential function. The surface of the body may undergo arbitrary time-dependent deformation.04 cm2 3. except surrounding regions of the solid boundaries of the body and wakes. For reasons concerning to the aerodynamic model. We consider the boundary layers and wakes as zero-thickness sheets of vorticity. The proposed model considers a flow of an incompressible fluid characterized by a very high Reynolds number. II. t   0 Parameter values S L AR m Ω VD β αg Wing area Wing length Aspect ratio Mass Angular velocity Descent rate Cone angle Geometric angle of attack III. The time dependence is introduced into Laplace’s equation by the boundary conditions. The reference frames used to study the rotation motion of a flying seed are. 2). The governing equation is the well-known Laplace’s equation of continuity for incompressible and irrotational flows: 3.  1 2 3  with respect to the inertial frame is achieved by means of a rotation representation based on Euler angles. The position and velocity of an arbitrary point P belonging to the seed can be expressed as follows (see Fig. and it is the focus of the present work. time-dependent geometries and largely attached flows is unavailable in the literature. β. For a detailed description of the kinematical parameters involved in the flight of samaras. is assumed to be irrotational and incompressible over the entire flowfield. a) picture of a real samara [6]. As a result of the relative motion between the body and the fluid.058 g 977 rpm 0. an aerodynamic study of Rotating seeds by means of an UVLM involving a free deforming wake in the time domain.

validate and determine the limitations of the adopted aerodynamic model. For a field point on or very near the vortex segment itself or its extension. each panel belonging to the bound lattice is considered to be surrounded by a closed loop vortex of constant circulation. The first one consists of a flat plate immersed in a low subsonic flow. VB is the velocity associate with the bound-vortex lattice. p(x. ρ is the constant density of the fluid. t   t 2   H  t (4) where V(x. we present a series of results obtained with the current numerical tool. These segments divide the surface of the seed’s nut and seed’s blade into a number of elements of area (panels) (see Fig. Standard procedures use a range for δ between 10 and 25% of the smallest of the panel dimensions [17]. 2) The non-penetration condition: it is applied over the entire boundary of the solid immersed in the fluid. and they are located at the centroid of the corners of each panel (see Fig. RAM DDR3 of 4 GB. and ω  x1  x 2 . IV. p  x. and H is the energy per mass unit which is a function of time. the no penetration condition given by Eq. Aerodynamics loads The aerodynamics loads on the lifting surface are computed as follows: i ) for each element the pressure jump at the control point is computed with the unsteady Bernoulli equation (4).t) is the unknown pressure. C. where V is the freestream velocity.t) is the absolute velocity. The wing begins impulsively to move at constant velocity.t  to be troublesome. which are specific for Intel processors. A. these are called control points (CPs). This condition also called of impermeability requires that the normal component of the velocity of all fluid particles relative to the body surface must be zero on the body surface:  V  VB  VW  VP  nˆ 0 (3) A. nˆ is the unit vector normal to the body surface. and a hard disk of 2 TB. have been used to achieve higher performance. Figures 4a and 4b show the normal force coefficient CN and the moment coefficient CM for different values of the angle of attack (at . such as the trailing edge and wing tip of the lifting surface. t  e  t ω  x1 e 4 ω  x1 2    ω 2  2  ˆ1  ˆ 2   (2) where x1 and x2 are the position vectors of the point where the velocity are computed relative to the ends of the straight vortex segment. and the second one is the case of a two-blade rotor in hover that reaches the steady state. Automatic optimization options. (2) was slightly modified by introducing the quantity  ω . For a detailed mathematical formulation of the unsteady lattice-vortex method. ii ) the force in each element is computed as the product of the pressure jump times the element area times the normal unit vector. Discretization of the bound-vortex sheets representing the seed’s nut and blade. we replace the bound-vortex sheets by a lattice of short. t   V  x. 3. This causes the behavior of V  x. 3). B. representing the free-vortex sheets. t   1   x. Because the vortex sheets are replaced by vortex lattices. 1) Flat plate (AR = 1) In this Subsection we consider the case of a rectangular wing characterized by an aspect ratio AR = 1. In the case of a finite straight vortex segment of circulation (t) the velocity associated can be computed by using the following discrete version of the Biot-Savart law: V  xω . which implements the formulations described in Sections II and III. Eq. Discretization of the vortex sheets In the unsteady vortex-lattice method. where δ is the “cutoff radius”. the reader may consult [18]-[20]. Gj  t . The code was written in FORTRAN 90 and compiled to run in Windows platforms. decay away from body and its wakes. straight vortex segments of circulation i ( t). (3) is only satisfied at one point in each panel. Fig. For all cases. the spatial gradient of ψ . Boundary conditions The governing equation of the problem is complemented with the following boundary conditions: 1) Regularity at infinity: this condition requires that all disturbances due to a moving body in a fluid. eˆ1 and eˆ 2 unit vectors associated to x1 and x2 vectors. ω is or nearly is parallel to r1. and VP was defined in Eq. The model is completed by joining free vortex lines. the code was run on a desktop computer with an i5 processor. In order to circumvent this bad behavior. t  V  x. we present the reproduction of two well-known problems. initially at rest. to the bound-vortex lattice along the edges of separation. iii ) the resultant forces and moments are computed as the vector summation of the forces and moments produced by each element. NUMERICAL SIMULATIONS In this section. Validations In order to verify. In order to reduce the dimension of the problem. 3). (1). VW is the velocity associated with the free-vortex lattice .field and the velocity field V co-exist.

6774  10 4 seg. Despite this phenomenon can be easily incorporated into the model through the on/off mechanism developed by Roccia et al. 4. where small differences are attributed to the discretization of the blade that comprises only 12 panels in chord-wise direction. reference values obtained from experimental measurements are also presented. both the aerodynamic model as well as the kinematic model are nondimensionalized by using the following characteristic variables of length LC. B. a) Normal force coefficient. ΔCp vs.  N ps LC  (5) C   air  1. i. CL vs. Even though Lentink et al. in the simulation wakes are only emitted from the trailing edge. Comparison of the ΔCp and CL distributions of a two-blade rotor. 89 and 96% of the blade length. 68. b) moment coefficient. 80. it is not included in this work. 2) Two-blade rotor in hover In this Subsection. 240 time steps. we present the distribution of the coefficient of pressure difference along the dimensionless chord.steady state regime). we consider the experiment studied by Caradonna and Tung [23]. In Figures 5a-c. y/b. It is observed that all the ΔCp distributions are in very good agreement. x/c.00  109 kg/mm 3 . Fig. Experimental results are reported for sections that are located at the 50. Aerodynamics of a samara in descending motion In this Subsection. showing in all cases an excellent agreement. time TC and density ρC: A  0. Figure 5d shows the distribution of a lift coefficient along the dimensionless span. NP is the number of aerodynamic panels. although the results are in good agreement. severe numerical instabilities occur when the number of revolutions simulated are more than one.5º. some discrepancies are realized. Figure 6a shows . 5. and Nps is the number of time steps. A two-blade rotor with an aspect ratio AR = 6. and the tip vortex. Both. and L VC  C  1142. which are attributed to some compressibility effects. [22]. in which the chord length is 7. due to the outer region of the blade is in a mid-subsonic range. For comparison. TC Where A is the area of all the aerodynamic panels in the bound lattice. where blades are made up of an NACA 0012 profile and are untwisted and untapered with a precone of 0. With respect to the CL distribution. Fig. NP 1 1 TC   7.85 mm/seg.87741 mm.5 in. we present some numerical results for the aerodynamics of an untwisted maple seed while descending to the ground. The current numerical results are compared against experimental data reported by Belotserkovskii [21] and with numerical values published by Konstandinopoulos et al. [12] showed that LEV plays a fundamental role in the seed flight. and ii) four complete revolutions of the seed. [16]. but not from the tip.e. In order to have uniform elements in the free-vortex lattice. kinematical and morphological parameters for the seed considered here can be found in Table I. The collective pitch angle of the blade is 8º and the angular speed is 1250 RPM (Revolutions Per Minute). The setup of the numerical experiment presented below consist of: i) a fully spatial discretization of the seed with 500 aerodynamic panels (300 for the blade and 200 for the nut).

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