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Airdate: Sep 06, 2010
Scientist: Christopher Viney

Floppy Flier

Floppy Flier
Maple tree seed pods are the inspiration for a new way to deliver relief supplies via airplane.


JM: If you're looking for scientific inspiration, well, look no further than your own backyard. I'm Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Bio-inspired design was the theme of last year's Kids' Science Challenge. One of our winners, 5th-grader Olivia Smith-Donovan, took her inspiration from a maple seed, which rotates as it falls slowly to the ground. Her idea was to build a rotor-like device that could be used to drop relief packages into remote areas, sort of like a giant maple seed. Well, University of California professor Christopher Viney came on board to help make Olivia's idea fly.

CV: Olivia's basic idea is sound, but what we've learned is that it's not necessarily going to work if you take a maple seed and just make it bigger. There are other designs which could be very good at slowing down the descent of something if you drop itWhat are we calling these?
OD: Floppy Fliers.
CV: Floppy Fliers.

JM: The design that Olivia and Christopher came up with is like a miniature paper tree. You can picture branches fanning out of a paper trunk, acting like helicopter blades to slow the descent of whatever's attached to the Floppy Flier.

OD: You fold up the paper. Well, you roll it up.
ER: And I'm going to cut through all the layers of paper.

Graduate student Emily Reed helped with the design and construction of the floppy flier.

OD: Woo hoo! It worked!

JM: The Floppy Flier really worked, descending gracefully to the ground. There are many other possibilities that could make it work even better. And Christopher Viney and Olivia suggest a few variables that you might try.

CV: Is there a particular shape that might work best, is there a particular size that might work best. Perhaps the material we make it out of, perhaps the way the wings are twisted.

JM: To see Olivia's experiments in action and to learn how to make your own version of the floppy flier, visit kidsciencechallenge.com. Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation.