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Pitot tubes are small devices used on aircraft, turbo machinery and even Formula One cars to measure flow velocity, or rather, measure pressure to calculate flow velocity.
Basic theory
The Bernoulli stated that the pressure goes gown as the velocity goes up, when following a particle along its flow path. For incompressible fluids, this can be stated using the following equation:
P_static + 0.5*rho*v² = P_total
P_static: this is the static pressure, which is the pressure you would feel when traveling along with the flow without disturbing it.
0.5*rho*v²: this is the dynamic pressure, which basically relates to the kinetic energy of the fluid.
P_total: this is the total pressure, which is the pressure you would measure when you bring the flow to a complete standstill – therefore, it’s also called the stagnation pressure.
The interesting thing about this equation is that we can reshuffle it to calculate the velocity based on the static pressure and total pressure:
V = sqrt( (2*(P_total-P_static) ) / (rho) )
Measurement probes
So how do we measure the static and total pressure? Well, you guessed it – we can use a pitot tube!
At the front of the pitot tube, which points directly into the wind, the air comes to a complete standstill. This means that the pressure measured there equals the total pressure.
At the side of the pitot tube, the openings are parallel to the flow and so it is not slowed down. A “static ring” as it is called is often used in these kinds of probes. The pressure measured here equals the static pressure.
Logging the pressure difference
The next step is to obtain the difference between the static pressure and the total pressure to calculate the dynamic pressure. You can do this in an analogue way, by connecting both tubes coming from the measurement openings to a manometer or a membrane. The difference in water height or membrane deflection can then be used to calculate the pressure delta and then the velocity. Or you can hook the tubes to a pressure transducer and use the electric output signal to log the data.
Limitations
Keep in mind that a pitot tube can only measure the relative wind speed, so the difference in velocity between the object and the air (called the airspeed in aviation terms). So if you want to know the absolute speed of your object versus the real world (called the ground speed in aviation), you’ll also need to measure the velocity of the wind itself. Or cheat, and use your GPS 😊
Also important is to keep the pitot tube pointing straight into the wind, although more advanced versions are able to measure not just wind speed but also the angle of attack of the wind. –7
Pitot tubes come in various shapes and forms, like this elbow version I got from the lovely Katharina Kreitz of Vectoflow – they actually make pitot tubes using 3D laser sintering to create complex internal channels for custom applications.
Use in applications
Pitot tubes are used in countless applications. Airplanes are the most obvious, where they log the airspeed. But they are also used on the front of Formula One cars, to have a good reference velocity to compare to wind tunnel data. They’re also key to measure & calibrate the wind speed of wind tunnels, just ahead of the test section. And I’ve been told pitot tubes have even been used to measure the airflow in kitchen cooker hoods – not kidding you!