Flapping Wings Remain An Elusive Goal

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Aircraft may keep flying higher, faster, and more efficiently, but one thing seems to keep nagging at the world of aviation engineers -- and what some people really want is to fly just like a bird. Two projects underway this summer are working on the tricky mechanics of flapping flight. At Stanford University, a team of scientists and students funded with $1 million from the National Geographic Society are working to build a full-size flying replica of a pterosaur, a dinosaur with a 16-foot wingspan. A documentary about the project is due to air in 2006. At the University of Missouri, Prof. K.M. Isaac is inspired not by birds or beasts, but by bugs. He is studying the shape and weight of insect wings, and the frequency at which they flap, to help build robotic bugs with wingspans up to five feet. The bugs will be designed to fly in the low-density atmosphere of Mars. Scientists hope to perfect these interplanetary robo-bugs by the end of the decade.