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Drones inspired by insects could keep flying when damaged

Staff Writer |
To uncover the secret of birds and bees, biologists placed flies with a clipped wing into a wind tunnel and analysed their movements using high-speed cameras.

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They used this data to run simulations of the flies’ wing motion.

They then programmed a robotic fly to mimic the insects with different levels of wing damage, which allowed them to explore movements beyond the range of a real fly’s normal behaviour.

“We cannot ask the fly, ‘can you flap your wings a little bit faster or in a different way’,” says Florian Muijres at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “But we can ask that to the robot.”

With a wingspan of 50 centimetres, the robotic fly is larger than a fruit fly, which means the team also had to scale up its movements – and the “air” it moves in.

To keep the same ratio between the size of the wing and the viscosity of the medium around it, they replaced the air with mineral oil. “It sounds a bit weird,” says Muijres, but, “as a result, the aerodynamics around the wing are the same.”

This means the robot can’t actually fly – to do so, it would need air as viscous as mineral oil. However, the lessons gleaned from its oily swims could help other robots with flapping wings overcome damage.

Muijres and his team produced an algorithm based on their experiments to help drone developers keep their creations going after an accident.

It’s not only fruit flies that have lessons for drones: finding out how bumblebees fly through turbulent skies could improve their stability.

“One reason we were interested in bumblebees is they’re the tankers of the flying insect world,” says James Crall at Harvard University. “They’re pretty incredible flyers in the natural environment.”

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