A recent viral video features mesmerizing footage of a giant octopus kite flown at a kite festival in Singapore earlier this month. The kite’s arms twist and wave lazily in the breeze. Watching the video, I was struck by how realistic the kite’s motion looks. It really looks like an octopus is just cruising there in mid-air. And that resemblance might not be accidental.
In fluid dynamics, scientists often use a concept called dynamic similitude to test the physics of a scale model instead of the full-size original. The simplest version of this uses the Reynolds number to compare the model and the original. The Reynolds number is a dimensionless number that depends on the object’s size, the flow’s speed, and the density and viscosity of the fluid. If you match the scale model’s Reynolds number to the original’s Reynolds number, then the physics will be the same – even if you changed the fluid or the size of the object.
Returning to our kite, one thing the footage doesn’t entirely convey is just how enormous this kite really is. The Straits Times reports the kite is about the length of five buses and requires six people to get aloft. But the kite’s size helps compensate for the fact that it’s flying in air instead of swimming through viscous water like a real octopus. Although I’m left estimating the kite’s size and the wind’s speed, my quick calculations put the Reynolds numbers for the kite and the octopus on the order of 10,000. So, strange as it seems, this giant kite really is acting like a swimming octopus!