How Birdwatching Helped Reshape One of the Fastest Trains in The World

“Life solves its problems with well-adapted designs, life-friendly chemistry and smart material and energy use.”

Janine Benyus, Author of Biomimmicry

Enter Japan, a country that has been at forefront of innovation and technology for serval years. Many across the globe have drawn inspirations from their work, whether it’s from the automobile industry, smart gadgets, android robots or even refrigerators that are artificially intelligent. There isn’t the slightest dearth of new engineering ideas out there, but the real question is where do some of these developers draw their own inspiration from?

In 1964, Japan introduced their first bullet train called the Tokaido Shinkasen bullet train which was at the time the fastest train known to mankind. It was capable of reaching speeds of 210 km/hr, reducing the time taken from the city of Tokyo to Osaka by 3 hours. While this was an extraordinary feat that significantly helped the travelers of Japan, the residents living in close proximity to the tracks, faced a bit of a problem. The train was excruciatingly loud!

The reason behind this was that when the train passed through a tunnel, it would push out a large pocket of air as it reemerged from the other end of, creating a sonic boom. This was because of the rounded nose and the high drag force within the tunnel. Not only that, there was a significant amount of noise coming from the overhead cables known as the pantograph. This posed a concern for engineers who once again had no choice but to go back to the drawing board to find a solution to the problem. In the midst of it all, there was one man who stepped up to the task.

Eiji Nakatsu not only happened to be an engineer but he was a bird watcher too. Having previously attended a lecture on the role of birds in aviation engineering, he realized that a similar solution could be drawn for his trains as well. He started by studying the aerodynamic nature of certain species of birds that could potentially get the job done. In the process, he discovered three types of birds that emerged with flying colours –

The Owl –

They are known as the silent hunters of the night. For ornithologists, it posed a mind boggling question as to how these birds managed to flap their wings and swoop down with great speeds, without generating a whisper. They discovered that owls have tiny comb like serrations on the edges of their primary wings that form tiny vortices during flights instead of a large one, thereby curtailing the vibrations produced in air to a bare minimum. This noise cancelling effect has enabled the bird to navigate through the shadows of the night without being detected. Nakatsu saw this feature as an incredible design that could be mimicked for the pantograph of the train and subsequently applied in it his schematics for testing. The design was an absolute success.

The Penguin –

While many of us find it absolutely amusing to watch penguins waddle across sheets of ice in Antartica, these birds have adapted extremely well to swim underwater. In fact, the jokes probably on us considering many species of penguin manage to swim faster than any other water bird on this planet. Their spindle like shape is the primary reason why they are amongst the best divers in the world, allowing their bodies to maneuver through water with sudden twists and turns. While studying the drag reducing ability of the shape of these birds, the team working alongside Nakatsu incorporated the spindle like design in the supporting frame for the pantograph of the train, enabling it to lower its wind resistance, while simultaneously aiding it to move much faster, with better efficiency.

The Kingfisher –

In his observations, Eiji Nakatsu had an epiphany that kingfishers could dive in into water with such streamlined precision that they would do so without creating a splash. The answer lay in the shape of thier head and bill, that was engineered by nature to cut through the surface of the water and catch their prey within a split second. This makes them the one of the most efficient beings on earth that are capable of a smooth transition from one medium (air) to another (water). This eureka moment was instrumental in the replacement of the initial rounded nose of the train to a far sleeker design that resembled the beak of the kingfisher. The significant piece in the puzzle went on to completely eradicate the loud sonic boom which was the cause of sleepless nights for many residents, who were subjected to the sound of the passing trains.

Making these tiny adjustments yielded exponential results. The Shinkasen bullet train was relaunched in the year 1997. Renewed with designs inspired by nature, not only did the train manage to reduce the sound generated significantly, it also clocked speeds of more than 300 km/hr, a new world record at the time. Concurrently, the train also expended far lesser energy, operating at a 13% reduction in power.  Who would’ve guessed that by simply watching birds, we are capable of transforming our technologies for the better. This goes to show that the more we tune in to the natural world, the better we equip ourselves with the tried and tested patterns of nature. Even today, there are countless problems posed to mankind but there’s also a wealth of solutions and ideas around us, waiting to be tapped into. All we need to do is to ask ourselves – What would nature do?

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