Aerodynamics of flexible membranes

  • Pinunta Rojratsirikul

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Membrane wings are used both in nature and small aircraft as lifting surfaces. For these low Reynolds number applications, separated flows are common and are the main sources of unsteadiness. Adaptability of the membrane wing is known to improve the vehicle performance; and membrane compliancy in animal wings such as bats contributes significantly to their astonishing flights. Yet, the aerodynamic characteristics of the membranes are still largely unknown. An experimental study of flexible membranes at low Reynolds numbers was undertaken. Two-dimensional membrane aerofoils were investigated, with particular focus on the unsteady aspects. Membrane deformation, flow fields and fluid-structure interaction were examined over a range of angles of attack and freestream velocities. A comprehensive study of the effect of membrane pre-strain and excess length was carried out. Low aspect ratio membrane wings were investigated for rectangular and nonslender delta wings. The amplitude and mode of membrane vibration are found to be dependent mainly on the location and the unsteadiness level of the shear layer. The results indicate a strong coupling of unsteady flow with the membrane oscillation. With increasing Reynolds number, the separated shear layer becomes more energetic and closer to the surface. The membrane not only has smaller size of the separation region compared to a rigid aerofoil, but also excites the roll-up of large vortices which might lead to delayed stall. The membrane aerofoils with excess length exhibit higher vibration modes, earlier roll-up and smaller separated region, compared to the ones with pre-strain. This smaller separated region delays the onset of membrane vibrations to a larger incidence. For the low aspect ratio membrane wings, the combination of tip vortices and leading-edge vortex shedding results in a mixture of streamwise and spanwise vibrational modes. The flexibility benefits the rectangular wing more than the delta wing by increasing the maximum normal force and the force slope by a larger amount. Similar to the two-dimensional membrane aerofoils, the Strouhal numbers of the oscillations are on the order of unity, and there is a coupling with the wake instabilities in the post-stall region. Stronger tip vortices on membrane wings contribute significantly to total lift enhancement.
Date of Award1 Oct 2010
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorIsmet Gursul (Supervisor) & Zhan Wang (Supervisor)


  • flexible mebranes
  • low Reynolds numbers
  • aerodynamics

Cite this