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Butterfly-Inspired Flying Robots

Fri, 2012-05-11 14:36 -- cnicolini

Mechanical engineers study the planet's prettiest bugs for flight insights.
Originally published: 
May 11 2012 - 2:30pm
By: 
Karin Heineman, ISTV Executive Producer

Flying insect-size robots – known as micro aerial vehicles – can test air quality and look for survivors during search and rescue missions. Now mechanical engineers are studying how insects move their wings to help these tiny aerial vehicles fly better.

“We want to see what we can learn from the dynamics of their insect flight to potentially apply to the design of these micro aerial vehicles,” said Tiras Lin, a mechanical engineering undergraduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.

Micro aerial vehicles – or MAVs – do not turn easily or quickly. But butterflies, like most insects, have a wide variety of flight movements that can be adopted to help MAVs maneuver better.

“We look to nature for inspiration because we know the butterfly is almost like the ultimate micro aerial vehicle that nature has already designed for us,” said Lin.

High-speed video cameras show that the bug rearranges its mass, which may help it rapidly twist and turn. The insects also bring their wings closer and farther away from their bodies to control their flight, similar to the way ice skaters use their arms to control the speed of their spins.

“We’re able to start to uncover some of the secrets behind the dynamics of insect flight that have never been considered before by biologists or the designers of these vehicles,” said Lin.

Mimicking insects’ flight patterns may help flying robots finally master the technique.

“We hope that this research will help engineers design micro aerial vehicles that will be able to fly easily through complex urban environments,” Lin said.

Butterfly wings are a popular study subject for biomimicry – a process that harnesses nature's solutions for innovative human devices. A Canadian company, for example, is using the intricate patterns on the wings of the Morpho butterfly to develop anti-counterfeiting technology.


Karin Heineman is the executive producer of Inside Science TV. She has produced over 600 video news segments on science, technology, engineering and math in the past 13 years for Inside Science TV and its predecessor, Discoveries and Breakthroughs Inside Science.

Get Inside The Science:

Unraveling a Butterfly’s Aerial Antics Could Help Builders of Bug-Size Flying Robots

Study of Insect Flight Maneuvers

The Beautiful Science of a Butterfly's Flight

Rajat Mittal, Johns Hopkins University

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