Scientists Glean Secrets of Flight From Birds, Bats, and Bugs

By Eliza Strickland | April 9, 2009 5:39 pm

bat flyingResearchers have learned the universal secret behind the graceful, aerial turns executed by everything from insects to cockatoos. And it’s a surprisingly simple process: To turn left, all a bird has to do is flap its right wing a little bit harder than the left wing. To end the turn, the bird simply returns to flapping its wings in unison [Discovery News]. Researchers hope to duplicate the simple set of motions to create more nimble and acrobatic flying robots.

Though the dynamics probably can’t work at large scales — building-sized robotic birds won’t ever be as agile as a swallow — they could be harnessed in small drones used by explorers or the military. Compared to the average hummingbird or fruit fly, such craft are now clumsy and unstable. “The results will inform all future research into maneuvering flight in animals and biomimetic flying robots” [Wired], wrote biomechanicist Bret Tobalske in a commentary.

For the study, published in Science, researchers used 1,000 frame-per-second video cameras to first study hummingbirds and hawk moths hovering before a feeder. Once they deduced their deceptively simple turning mechanism, they checked animals ranging from insects to bats to large birds to see if they used the same maneuver. Lead researcher Tyson Hedrick explains that he was surprised by positive results across the board. “We didn’t expect things to fall out this neatly,” he said, particularly since the process is the same for animals of all sizes from the fruit fly to the bat to the cockatoo [AP].

Study coauthor Xinyan Deng is now using the high-speed photography to create flapping robots that bring humans a little closer to the speed and maneuverability of these animal aces. The first robot sits in a container of mineral oil, flapping its wings to “fly” in the liquid…. A wing-flapping robot would have many advantages over fixed-wing aircraft, said Deng. Wing-flapping robots, like their organic counterparts, would be easier to control and could operate in a much smaller area [Discovery News].

Related Content:
80beats: Pterodactyl-Shaped Spy Plane May Soon Take to the Skies
The Loom: How to Be a Bat [with high-speed video]
DISCOVER: Air Force Ponders Bat-Planes
DISCOVER: It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane explains the benefits jet planes could achieve by flocking together
DISCOVER: The All-Important Upstroke, learning lessons from the European starling

Image: Jose Iriarte-Diaz

  • Matt Tarditti

    A more appropriate comparison would be a rotary wing aircraft (helicopter) vs. a flapping-wing aircraft. A flapping wing is used for lift, manuvering, and propulsion, just like a rotary wing. A fixed wing has no propulsive properties.

    Comparing a rotary wing (RW) and a flapping wing (FW): BOTH can operate in small areas. And (here’s my main contention with the article above) an RW aircraft would be MUCH easier to control than an FW aircraft. The dynamics of a flapping wing are much harder to model than a helicopter blade, which means the control system must be more sophisticated.

    In short: don’t hold your breath for flapping wing aircraft

  • Nick


    Dune-style ornithopters, here we come!

  • amphiox

    It is interesting, I think, to speculate as to why there are no rotary wing organisms in nature. Four times, powered flight evolved independently and all four times flapping wing systems evolved. If RW aircraft are easier to control than FW aircraft, then why wasn’t this advantage ever exploited in nature? What were the contingencies that prevented the evolution of rotating wings?

  • Kin

    Amphiox. It’s called an axle. Hard to make of flesh. Especially, because it has to be a useful apendenge for millions of years before it becomes more and more rotar like.

    Plus, the very system of muscles would be different. Perhaps you could have the standard muscle contraction that would give it, the independent axis of the rotary blade, a push along the side, but I don’t see it being efficient.

  • Matt Tarditti

    Amphiox, I wondered the same thing. However, to exploit your logic, think about the analogous wheel vs. walking. Nature never created a wheeled animal, but obviously a wheeled robot (Roomba) is much easier to control than a walking one (Asimo).
    Nature doesn’t seem to go for easier to control – I would think energy conservation would be the guiding principle. As such, a FW is much more efficient (I think?) than a RW. But the trade off in control scheme for a mechanical FW is a tough hurdle.

  • FILTHpig

    I wish I evolved a rotery blade on my back. It’d make my commute so much easier.

  • R

    The bacterial flagellum and its rotary propulsion comes to mind (although it’s obviously not used for flight).

    I hope they continue pursuing rotary flight, it may someday enable human flight…

  • kiflom

    this website is helpful for engineers

  • John Mitchell

    Nature has a rotating wing in the form of the Maple Key or Sycamore Seed and what’s interesting about that is that if a Maple Key is overlaid on a Fly’s wing they are fundamentally the same in profile and in design.

  • Robert Mendez

    Biologist’s often chalk up questions about why nature does not cover a particular innovation to historical limitations. They seem to say that other factors would either eliminate a particular permutation, very early on, or, for another different set of reasons, not allow it to pass on genes for perhaps pragmatic reasons. Wings in nature seem to have covered many of the possible strategies, from humming birds to underwater fliers, and the Burgess Shale seems to have lots of critters who no doubt had unique propulsion systems. But the most successful and most abundant critters of all are certainly the masters of flight of the insect world. Soon, they will have it all to themselves.

  • Lilla Wigand

    AGHHHH!!!!!! the nation’s not the same while not TED his particular bizarre observations and even quiteness: (TTTEEEEDDDDD!!!!!!!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar