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Shark skins inspire Navy researcher's drone development

Nicole Xu, Ph.D., a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory Postdoctoral Research Associate from the Laboratories for Computational Physics & Fluid Dynamics designs faster and more energy efficient underwater vehicles using bioinspired shark skin-like surfaces. Photo courtesy of U.S. Naval Research Library
Nicole Xu, Ph.D., a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory Postdoctoral Research Associate from the Laboratories for Computational Physics & Fluid Dynamics designs faster and more energy efficient underwater vehicles using bioinspired shark skin-like surfaces. Photo courtesy of U.S. Naval Research Library

May 6 (UPI) -- A U.S. Naval Research Laboratory postdoctoral research associate is designing underwater drones using surfaces inspired by shark skins.

A Navy press release issued Thursday described how Nicole Xu, Ph.D., a NRL postdoctoral research associate from the Laboratories for Computational Physics & Fluid Dynamics is developing "bioinspired surfaces" based on shark skins to make unpiloted underwater vehicles faster and more energy efficient.

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"Shark skin comprises arrays of teeth-like denticle structures, which contribute to fast and stealthy swimming by turbulent drag reduction," said Xu, who began her NRL postdoctoral associateship in January 2021.

According to the release, she is currently testing 3D printing capabilities and designing the foils to conduct initial experiments in a water tunnel.

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Xu plans to test these bioinspired surfaces on hydrofoils in flow channels before adding them to vehicles like the NRL-developed WANDA UUV.

"Xu has demonstrated extraordinary motivation and initiative, as well as technical expertise in the area of unpiloted systems research," said Jason Geder, an NRL aerospace engineer who is Xu's mentor.

In the release she described how the rhetoric regarding women in science, technology, engineering and math has shifted "how women can assimilate into male-dominated fields to how male-dominated fields can be more inclusive and seek underrepresented groups."

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As a high school and college student, she said, she was advised not to show emotion, but by graduate school that shifted.

"Faculty of all genders spoke candidly about their struggles in research, and emphasized that emotions are humanizing, not demonizing," Xu said. I also worked in a mechanical engineering laboratory with primarily female graduate students, which I did not consciously view as noteworthy until someone else pointed it out. It was just normal to me."

Since she started postdoctoral work in January, Xu has worked in in a primarily virtual environment, but said has found her colleagues and mentors accessible.

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"Starting a postdoctoral position during the pandemic is challenging," Geder said. "Dr. Xu has integrated with the NRL community seamlessly and I look forward to working together as she continues her research and integrates her results into other ongoing efforts at NRL and across the unpiloted systems research community."

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