Can an armadillo paper airplane fly? Autodesk says yes

Autodesk researchers have developed a Pteromys, a tool that lets anyone design a paper airplane that will fly, no matter how outlandish.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read

An Autodesk researcher has created a tool that lets anyone design any kind of paper airplane they want, optimized for maximum flight. Autodesk

We've all made the standard paper airplane, that elongated triangle made up of six simple folds. But what if you wanted to make a paper airplane that looks like an armadillo? Could you get that to fly?

If you're using Pteromys, a new research tool created at Autodesk, the answer is yes.

Autodesk researchers on Tuesday will present a paper at the SIGGRAPH graphics and design conference outlining a system that helps users turn just about any concept for a paper airplane -- no matter how bizarre or extreme and no matter how much or how little experience the user has with flight dynamics -- into a streamlined, aerodynamic flying wonder.

Pteromys is the brainchild of Nobuyuki Umetani, a post-doctoral scientist who spent a year working at Autodesk Research in Toronto. The science behind Pteromys is complex, relying on Umetani's years studying computer graphics and physical simulations for interactive and aerodynamics.

Make it Fly

For users, it's simple: Draw a digital plane design in the tool, click the "Make it Fly" button, and sit back as it instantly optimizes the design for maximum air time. Even better, the system can transmit the design to a laser cutter, which quickly spits out an easily-constructed version of the user's plane. Then it's time to go flying.

The results can be surprising, with designs that make it possible for everything from an armadillo to a dragon, to soar. It's that surprise element that led to the project's title, which is a scientific name for a flying squirrel . "I asked why we were calling it" Pteromys, said Ryan Schmidt, an Autodesk Research scientist who oversaw Umetani's work. Umetani replied, "'Isn't it obvious? It's something that shouldn't fly, but does."

A tool for creating crazy paper airplane designs (pictures)

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Although there are some obvious commercial applications for the tool, such as an iPhone app for designing paper airplanes, it's not at all clear what will become of the project. Pteromys isn't publicly available and it's uncertain when, or if, it will be. But it's an example of the kind of interactive system, where users are guided by simulations inside tools, that people at Autodesk like Umetani are creating. Plus, Autodesk -- which builds 3D design software for entertainment, engineering, and other industries -- hopes to soon have the tool on display at one of its technology workshops in San Francisco as a demonstration of that kind of research and technology.

Still, the idea behind Pteromys is compelling. It began as a much less ambitious project geared toward helping Schmidt, who had no concept of aerodynamics, design a plane that would stay aloft. "I was trying to make a glider on a MakerBot [3D printer] and I couldn't get it to fly," Schmidt said. Umetani pointed out that Schmidt's design wouldn't fly because of basic aerodynamics -- "the wings were in the wrong place, and the center of mass needed to be further back."

Umetani's work on the project proceeded with his understanding of basic engineering, concepts much simpler than anything a giant aviation company like Boeing might work on, Schmidt recalled. It fit right in with the mission of Autodesk Research, a 50-person division of the San Francisco 3D design software company. There, scientists work on projects -- like Pteromys -- that may be years ahead of what any of the company's product divisions need, yet which foresee where its technology will be headed.

For Pteromys, "the whole premise was to encode that knowledge," Schmidt said, "to help a user like me who is hopeless at designing a glider."

Even though the science behind Pteromys made sense to Umetani, the challenge was integrating it into a tool that provided instant feedback. Usually, things like fluid dynamics and other scientific principles involved in making planes require weeks of computation on a supercomputer -- and not on a laptop computer.

The Pteromys tool, which has a 'Make it Fly' button that instantly optimizes a user's design. Autodesk

But that's just what Umetani did, borrowing elements from propeller design -- known as "blade theory" -- and applying them in a way that could quickly evaluate different designs for airworthiness. That's when the light bulb went off over his head.

"The Aha moment was when [Umetani] realized that this would work with any sort of wing shape," Schmidt said."

Infinite designs

What makes Pteromys exciting for paper airplane fans is the idea it can turn almost any design into something that will fly by tweaking details like wing location and shape, or the length of fuselage. The user decides on the design -- "a wing shaped like this, and a body shaped like that, and the system...moves them around," said Schmidt.

Within seconds, Pteromys evaluates the design and runs millions of simulations, optimizing it until it arrives at the most aerodynamic. The user can view a chart that shows how far the plane will fly. "It relies on this assumption that there is an infinite [number] of gliders that would fly some distance," Schmidt said, "and the system is searching for the glider that will fly the furthest."