GPUs and the Mystery of Flying Snakes

By Tiffany Trader

October 31, 2013

Ever heard of flying snakes? Indigenous to the tropical forests of India and Southeast Asia, these legless reptiles soar remarkable distances. Just how they accomplish this feat has long puzzled researchers.

The amazing flying technique has been difficult to study, but now for the first time scientists are using a GPU-accelerated computer model to decode the aerodynamic factors that allow snakes to soar through the jungle canopy, gliding as far as 21 meters, or close to 70 feet.

The scientists have published a paper revealing new details about the aerodynamics of an anatomically correct cross-section of Chrysopelia paradisi, a species of flying snake native to the rain forests of East Asia.

The snakes have a unique method of aerial locomotion, the authors write. When they jump from tree branches, they flatten their bodies and undulate from side to side to produce a glide. The research team was especially interested in how the shape of the snake’s body cross-section during the glide helps generate lift.

The team paired a custom-made computational fluid dynamics (CFD) application with a Tesla K20 GPU accelerator to create two-dimensional computer models of the flying snakes. They also performed real-world physical models – using 3D printed components in water tunnels.

The GPU-accelerated model confirmed wind tunnel findings. Both showed that optimal aerodynamic lift occurs at a 35 degree angle of attack, i.e., the trajectory of the snake with respect to the air flow.

The authors write that the “enhanced lift occurs at the same angle of attack in previous experiments with the snake cross-section, but in a different range of Reynolds number.” They attribute this discrepancy to the limits of a 2D study. Next, the team plans to use additional GPUs to reproduce the study with 3D models of the snake body.

Lead researcher Lorena Barba, associate professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the George Washington University in Washington D.C., is scheduled to give a talk on this topic at SC13. If you’re not attending the conference, you will find all of NVIDIA’s booth presentations streamed live at the company’s SC13 web page.

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