Study Details How Flying Insects Can Inspire Future Robotic Engineering
Denrie Caila Perez posted on November 06, 2019 |
A fly completing a series of complex maneuvers to land upside down on a ceiling. (Image courtesy of Penn State.)
A fly completing a series of complex maneuvers to land upside down on a ceiling. (Image courtesy of Penn State.)

Researchers from the Penn State Department of Mechanical Engineering have recently published a study that explores the aerobatic maneuvers of flying insects. The study details how flying insects are able to quickly land upside down. According to the team, it is arguably one of the most difficult and least-understood aerobatic maneuvers performed by flying insects.

“Through this work, we sought to understand how a fly executes the maneuvers of landing upside down in the blink of an eye,” said Bo Cheng, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and lead author of the paper.

Using high-speed videography, the team was able to observe how flies maneuver themselves to land inverted. According to their data, it takes four precisely timed maneuvers for the flies to execute the landing. First, they increase their speed, which allows them to rapidly rotate their body (which has been likened to a cartwheel). They then perform a sweeping leg extension before successfully landing with a leg-assisted body swing. This is how they are able to position themselves firmly on ceilings.

In addition, the researchers believe that these maneuvers are aided with the help of a complex series of visual and sensory cues that set the action in motion.

According to the team, there is a lot of interest in integrating the motion in robots.

“Within the blink of an eye, these flies can totally invert their body and land, which is quite spectacular,” said Jean-Michel Mongeau, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State. “We see it all the time happening around us, but we’ve demonstrated the complexity of the maneuver. There is a lot of interest for robots to be able to do the same.”

However, present robotic technology still isn’t capable of mirroring the speed and efficiency needed to execute the same maneuvers that flies perform.

The team also believes that its study can be used to explore neuroscience applications.

“How is a fly’s nervous system able to do this so quickly?” Mongeau asked. “This work reiterates how fast these maneuvers are executed within an extremely small nervous system. This data can lead to new hypotheses for understanding how brains function.”

The researchers hope that their study will encourage engineers and designers to continue looking to nature for inspiration as robotic technology advances.

“We look at nature for inspiration,” said Mongeau. “This helps drive the fundamental science of engineering—to understand how flies are able to solve these problems so we can apply them to future technologies.”

The practice of biomimicry has long become a favored method for innovation as engineers begin to seek more sustainable solutions. As human engineering increasingly faces more complex challenges, observing how natural processes and ecological principles work—be it through design or function—presents a new insight into engineering. As stated by the Biomimicry Guild:

“Biomimicry is an innovation method that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies—for example, a solar cell inspired by a leaf. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on Earth over the long haul. Biomimicry follows life’s principles, such as build from the bottom up, self-assembly, optimize rather than maximize, use free energy, cross-pollinate, embrace diversity, adapt and evolve, use life-friendly materials and processes, engage in symbiotic relationships, and enhance the biosphere. By following these principles you can create products and processes that are well-adapted to life on Earth.”

Bert Bras, a professor of engineering at Georgia State adds, “Biomimicry implies copying, and simply copying is not necessarily the best or smartest way to do things.". “Inspiration allows the engineer to take the best from nature and put it in a new (engineering) context."

The research team’s study was published on October 23 and can be found in the Science Advances journal.

For more on the latest news and advancements, check out how this biomimicry-inspired surface can harvest water from the air here.


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