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The 'Ultimate' Science Fair Project: Flying Disk Aerodynamics

Difficulty
Time Required Short (2-5 days)
Prerequisites You should know the basics of throwing a frisbee (i.e., be able to play catch with a friend).
Material Availability Readily available
Cost Very Low (under $20)
Safety No hazards

Abstract

Are you good at tossing a Frisbee®? It is great when you throw a perfect, arcing curve, right on target! If you can do that, you have already trained your arm on the aerodynamics of Frisbee flight. Why not treat your brain to some Frisbee science with this project?

Objective

Use aerodynamic principles to predict the flight direction and distance for a Frisbee.

Credits

Andrew Olson, Ph.D., Science Buddies

  • Frisbee® is a registered trademark of Wham-o Inc.

Cite This Page

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "The 'Ultimate' Science Fair Project: Flying Disk Aerodynamics" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 17 June 2013. Web. 31 July 2014 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Aero_p010.shtml>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2013, June 17). The 'Ultimate' Science Fair Project: Flying Disk Aerodynamics. Retrieved July 31, 2014 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Aero_p010.shtml

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Last edit date: 2013-06-17

Introduction

Tossing a Frisbee with your friends is a great way to have fun in the sun. As you practice your throws and become more accurate, you are learning about the aerodynamics of Frisbee flight intuitively. You are learning the body mechanics that will make the Frisbee go where you want it to go. This science project will get the thinking part of you into your Frisbee tossing. Who knows, it might even help you get better!

Aerodynamics project Throwing frisbee
Figure 1. Tossing a Frisbee with friends can be a lot of fun, and can be a great way to learn more about aerodynamics! (Louis Desroches)

Two key forces that act on a Frisbee during its flight are lift and drag. Lift is the force that allows a Frisbee to stay in the air, and it opposes the force of gravity on the mass of the Frisbee in flight. The Frisbee itself creates this lift force as it flies through the air. Because of the curved shape of the Frisbee, the airflow above the Frisbee must travel at a higher velocity than the airflow below the Frisbee, which creates an area of low air pressure above the Frisbee and relatively high air pressure below it. This difference in air pressure provides the lift for the Frisbee. Drag is a backward force on the Frisbee, and it goes against the Frisbee's movement through the air. The force of drag acts perpendicular to the force of lift. Figure 2 below shows how lift and drag act on a Frisbee. The NASA website listed in the Bibliography is a great place to start learning more about the concepts of lift and drag.

The forces acting on a frisbee in flight (lift, drag and weight) and their relationship to the direction of flight and the disk angle.
Figure 2. This diagram shows the forces on a Frisbee in flight. The arrow v shows the direction of flight. The downward arrow mg is the weight of the Frisbee (mass times gravity). The backward arrow, D, is the force of drag. The upward arrow L is the force of lift. It acts perpendicular to the direction of flight and drag. Both lift and drag change as a function of the angle of attack, α, of the disc, shown here as the difference between the direction of flight and the direction the Frisbee is pointing. (Hubbard and Hummel, 2000)

You will notice in the diagram above that the Frisbee can travel at an angle. This can be caused by throwing the Frisbee at an angle. That is, at the moment when you snap your wrist and let go, the Frisbee can be tilted with respect to the ground. In this science project, we will call that tilt the "launch angle." Figure 3 below defines exactly what we mean. This is looking at the Frisbee edge-on, for a right-handed thrower. The dotted line is zero degrees, corresponding to a horizontal launch. When the outer edge of the Frisbee is above the horizontal, the launch angle is positive. When the outer edge of the Frisbee is below the horizontal, the launch angle is negative. Figure 4 below is for a left-handed thrower. Note that the definition of positive and negative angles changes.

Definition of launch angle for a right-handed thrower.  Outside edge tilted up is positive, outside edge tilted down is negative.
Figure 3. Definition of launch angle for a right-handed thrower. Outside edge tilted up is positive, outside edge tilted down is negative.

Definition of launch angle for a left-handed thrower.  Outside edge tilted up is negative, outside edge tilted down is positive.
Figure 4. Definition of launch angle for a left-handed thrower. Outside edge tilted up is negative, outside edge tilted down is positive.

As a side note, you have probably noticed that a Frisbee does not travel far if it is thrown without spin. Spinning the Frisbee helps it fly by supplying angular momentum, which keeps the Frisbee stable while it is rotating. The faster the Frisbee spins, the more stable it should be.

In this science project, you will test how the launch angle affects the distance and direction of a Frisbee's flight, and use this knowledge to predict the flight of a Frisbee based on its launch angle.

Terms and Concepts

  • Aerodynamics
  • Forces
  • Lift
  • Gravity
  • Air pressure
  • Drag
  • Angular momentum

Questions

  • What are the forces acting on a Frisbee in flight?
  • Can you think of other devices in which angular momentum is important for them to function?
  • How do you think the launch angle of the Frisbee affects the distance and direction of flight?

Bibliography

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) website has a great section on Aerodynamics. Even though there is not anything specific on Frisbee flight, you can still learn a lot about how Frisbees fly by learning about aerodynamic forces on other types of airfoils. Check out the sections on gliders, the lift simulator program, lift, and drag.

Materials and Equipment

  • Tape measure
  • String, chalk, or a hose
  • Frisbee
  • Optional: Masking tape and marker
  • Protractor
  • Optional: Helper (for measuring and throwing back the Frisbee)
  • Optional: Video camera and a second helper to run it
  • Lab notebook

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Experimental Procedure

  1. Do your background research and learn about the forces on the Frisbee in flight.
  2. Use string, chalk, or a hose to make a 10-15 foot center line for aiming your throws, as shown in Figure 5 below.
Flight measurements diagram.  Frisbee is thrown from launch point, aimed along center line.  Example landing points indicated in blue.  Measure distance from starting point and angle from the center line.  Angles to left of center line are negative, angles to right of center line are positive.
Figure 5. Throw the Frisbee from the launch point, aiming along the center line. Example landing points are indicated in blue. Measure the distance from the launch point and angle from the center line. Angles to the left of the center line are negative and angles to the right of the center line are positive.
  1. Practice throwing the Frisbee down the center line a few times so you get used to tossing it.
    1. If you have not thrown a Frisbee much before, you may want to try practicing it for a little while.
    2. Tip: A good way to throw a Frisbee is by standing sideways with the Frisbee held in front of you (near your other shoulder), then bringing the Frisbee horizontally across you as you throw it.
  2. If your tape measure is not as long as your typical Frisbee throw, you can make a longer tape measure using a piece of string. Mark off regular intervals with tape labels and a marker, and you are in business.
  3. Throw the Frisbee as flat and horizontal as you can, aiming it down the center line. When the Frisbee lands, measure the distance between the launch point and the Frisbee's landing point (where it first hit). Also measure the Frisbee's angle from the center line (using a protractor to measure the angle that the measuring tape makes with the center line). You can use a helper to help you collect this data. Record this data in your lab notebook.
    1. If you have a video camera, you can use it to help you analyze the launch angle of the Frisbee. Set it up near you so that it can record your throw without your body blocking the view. Later you can watch and stop the video at the moment that you release the Frisbee and measure the launch angle of the Frisbee.
    2. If you do not use a video camera, then you or a helper will have to watch closely and estimate the launch angle for each throw. Here is one method you can try: Hold one arm out horizontally and use the other arm to try to match the launch angle that you saw. You can have a helper use a protractor to measure the angle between your arms.
    3. If there is wind, note the wind speed and direction in your notebook. (Make a diagram like Figure 5 and show the direction of the wind.)
    4. If you clearly made a mistake on the throw (for example, if the release was way off the center line) then do not include it in your results.
  4. Repeat step 5 at least nine more times, making a total of at least ten good throws thrown from the horizontal angle.
    1. Try your best to throw with similar arm motion and speed, and impart a similar spin on the Frisbee each time. You want to have the same release point so that your arm is directed along the center line for each launch.
    2. For each throw, be sure to measure and record the results.
  5. Repeat steps 5-6 but try throwing the Frisbee with two different positive and two different negative angles (refer to Figures 3 and 4 for an explanation of what these angles mean). Make at least ten good throws at each of the four of these launch angles.
    1. To measure the effect of launch angle on Frisbee flight, you will need to try your best to keep all other aspects of the flight the same, as described in step 6a. The one thing you want to vary is the launch angle.
    2. For each throw, be sure to measure and record the results.
  6. When you are done collecting your data, average your results (the distance and direction) for each launch angle.
  7. Do you see a consistent relationship between launch angle and flight direction?
  8. Is there a relationship between launch angle and distance?
  9. Think of ways for showing your results (both the average and the scatter in the data) using a diagram like Figure 5 above.
  10. Can you explain your results in terms of the aerodynamic forces on the Frisbee?

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Variations

  • What happens if you include the complication of wind in the equation? How will the flight of the Frisbee® be affected by throwing into the wind? Across the wind? With the wind? How will launch angle change the flight in each of these conditions?
  • Compare Frisbee® flight with flight of an Aerobie (open ring flying disc). What differences do you notice? Can you explain them in terms of aerodynamic forces?

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