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Analysis of Flapping Propulsion: Comparison, Characterization, and Optimization


Martin, Nathan Koon-Hung (2018) Analysis of Flapping Propulsion: Comparison, Characterization, and Optimization. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/Q6CG-QY57.


In recent decades, the development of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) has rapidly increased and inspiration for novel designs has recently come from nature, primarily based on the fast, efficient, and maneuverable flapping motion of fish. Due to its potential, flapping propulsion is investigated through three studies.

The first study involves the comparison between swimming by flapping and by periodic contractions. A direct comparison is made between the two propulsion mechanisms by simplifying the motions, utilizing a machine that can operate in either mode of propulsion, and evaluating the average thrust generated and the average input power required per cycle between the two mechanisms when the overall kinematics are identical. The two propulsion mechanisms are tested using a variety of overall kinematics, flexible plates, and modified duty cycles, all of which suggest that flapping propulsion is the more efficient; however, periodic contractions with a modified duty cycle are shown to generate more thrust per cycle.

The second study involves the characterization of the impact of chord-wise curvature on the hydrodynamic forces and torques, motivated by the dorso-ventral bending of a fish's caudal fin during locomotion. The impact of curvature is shown to depend on the planform area of the flapping plate. Plates with a smaller or an identical planform area compared with a baseline rigid flat rectangular plate either decrease or increase the generated thrust, respectively. These phenomena are utilized to develop an actuated plate for velocity modulation and a snap-buckling plate to provide a greater thrust and efficiency compared with a rigid plate propulsor.

The third study involves the development and demonstration of a method to experimentally optimize an arbitrary three-dimensional trajectory for a flapping propulsor. The trajectory is parameterized by variables inspired by birds and fish, executed by a mechanism that can actuate an arbitrary motion in a hemisphere, and optimized using an adaptive evolutionary strategy. The trajectories are scored based upon their difference from a desired force set-point and their efficiency. All trajectory searches demonstrate good convergence properties and match the desired force set-point almost immediately. Additional generations primarily improve the efficiency. This novel approach finds optimal trajectories for generating side-forces, similar to how a fish's pectoral fin or a bird's wing functions, and for generating thrust, similar to how a fish's caudal fin operates.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Fluid mechanics; Bio-inspired propulsion; Fluid-structure interactions; Trajectory optimization; Flapping propulsion
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Engineering and Applied Science
Major Option:Aeronautics
Awards:Donald Coles Prize in Aeronautics, 2018. National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Gharib, Morteza
Thesis Committee:
  • Leonard, Anthony (chair)
  • McKeon, Beverley J.
  • Dickinson, Michael H.
  • Gharib, Morteza
Defense Date:29 May 2018
Funding AgencyGrant Number
National Science Foundation Graduate Research FellowshipDGE-1144469
Charyk Bio-inspired Laboratory at California Institute of TechnologyUNSPECIFIED
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:06072018-133402239
Persistent URL:
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription material of Chapter 3 is published in this journal.
Martin, Nathan Koon-Hung0000-0001-6038-6177
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:11036
Deposited By: Nathan Martin
Deposited On:08 Jun 2018 00:46
Last Modified:09 Aug 2022 16:56

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