This flying robot could reveal secrets of the aerial world of insects

The bot has already given scientists insight into how fruit flies execute rapid turns

insect bot

SHOO FLY  A new insect-inspired flying bot could be used to test ideas about how winged insects perform precise aerial maneuvers.

Henri Werij, TU Delft (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A new winged robot helps explain why airborne insects are so doggone hard to swat.

Scientists have wondered how these tiny pilots pull off such rapid twists and turns, but researchers haven’t been able to test all their ideas by monitoring real insects or using tethered robots. Now, a free-flying, insect-inspired robot, described in the Sept. 14 Science, gives researchers an alternative. Programming the bot with different flight control strategies and comparing its movement with real animal flights could reveal which techniques winged insects and other creatures use for airborne acrobatics.

The new robot can control how much it turns or rolls to the left or right — or pitches forward or backward — by precisely adjusting the flapping speed and angles of its wings. The bot is nimble enough to zip around at about 25 kilometers per hour and do aerial somersaults.

Matěj Karásek, a bioinspired roboticist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and colleagues used the robot to investigate how fruit flies execute rapid banked turns. The researchers had suspected a fruit fly doesn’t make these hairpin turns by intentionally turning to the left or right. Instead, the team thought that simply rolling to the side and pitching forward or backward would angle the insect in the proper direction. Their experiments with the bot supported this theory. When Karásek’s team programmed the robot to roll and pitch, but not to point itself left or right, the bot’s banked turns closely resembled those of real fruit flies.

This flapping robot could also help examine the flight methods of other animals, such as hummingbirds. Or it could be used for search-and-rescue jobs, building inspections or pollinating plants inside greenhouses, Karásek says.

SMOOTH MOVES A nimble, insect-inspired bot that twirls and zips around in the lab could help scientists better understand how winged animals weave through the air.

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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