The function of the alula on engineered wings: A detailed experimental investigation of a bioinspired leading-edge device

Mihary R. Ito, Chengfang Duan, Aimy A. Wissa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Birds fly in dynamic flight conditions while maintaining aerodynamic efficiency. This agility is in part due to specialized feather systems that function as flow control devices during adverse conditions such as high-angle of attack maneuvers. In this paper, we present an engineered three-dimensional leading-edge device inspired by one of these specialized groups of feathers known as the alula. Wind tunnel results show that, similar to the biological alula, the leading-edge alula-inspired device (LEAD) increases the wing's ability to maintain higher pressure gradients by modifying the near-wall flow. It also generates tip vortices that modify the turbulence on the upper-surface of the wing, delaying flow separation. The effect of the LEAD location and morphology on lift production and wake velocity profile are investigated using force and hot-wire anemometer measurements, respectively. Results show lift improvements up to 32% and 37% under post and deep stall conditions, respectively. Despite the observed drag penalties of up to 39%, the aerodynamic efficiency, defined as the lift-to-drag ratio, is maintained and sometimes improved with the addition of the LEAD to a wing. This is to be expected as the LEAD is a post-stall device, suitable for high angles of attack maneuvers, where maintaining lift production is more critical than drag reduction. The LEAD also accelerates the flow over the wing and reduces the wake velocity deficit, indicating attenuated flow separation. This work presents a detailed experimental investigation of an engineered three dimensional leading-edge device that combines the functionality of traditional two dimensional slats and vortex generators. Such a device can be used to not only extend the flight envelope of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), but to also study the role and function of the biological alula.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number056015
JournalBioinspiration and Biomimetics
Issue number5
StatePublished - Aug 29 2019


  • leading-edge device, alula
  • lift improvement
  • low Reynolds number flight
  • stall-mitigation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Engineering (miscellaneous)
  • Molecular Medicine
  • Biophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Biotechnology


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