Tokyo 2020: Volleyball Aerodynamics

A volleyball player dives to bump the ball while her teammate calls

Like footballs and baseballs, the trajectory of a volleyball is strongly influenced by aerodynamics. When spinning, the ball experiences a difference in pressure on either side, which causes it to swerve, per the Magnus effect. But volleyball also has the float serve, which like the knuckleball in baseball, uses no spin. 

In this case, how the ball behaves depends strongly on the way the ball is made. Some volleyballs use smooth panels, while others have surfaces modified with dimples or honeycomb patterns, and researchers found that these subtle changes make a big difference in aerodynamics. A float serve’s trajectory is unpredictable because the ball will swerve whenever air near the surface of the ball on one side goes turbulent or separates. And without spin to influence that transition, everything comes down to the ball’s speed and its surface.

Researchers found that volleyballs with patterned surfaces transition to turbulence at lower speeds, which makes their behavior more predictable overall. But players who want to maximize the unpredictability of their float serve might prefer smooth-paneled balls, which don’t make the transition until higher speeds. (Image credit: game – Pixabay, volleyballs – U. Tsukuba; research credit: S. Hong et al.T. Asai et al.; via Ars Technica)

Stick around all this week and next for more Olympic-themed fluid physics!

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