Do bug wings work like gyroscopes?

"I was surprised at the results," says coauthor Brad Dickerson. "This idea of wings being gyroscopes has existed for a long time, but this paper is the first to really address how that would be possible." (Credit: John/Flickr)

Many animals can move with more precision and accuracy than our best-engineering aircraft and technologies—and they do so without gyroscopes, which are rarely found in nature.

Gyroscopes measure rotation in everyday technologies, from unpiloted aerial vehicles to cell phone screen stabilizers.

Scientists know of just one group of insects, the group including flies, that has something that behaves like a gyroscope—sensors called halteres, clublike structures that evolved from wings.

Halteres provide information about the rotation of the body during flight, which helps flies perform aerial acrobatics and maintain stability and direction. But how do other insects without these sensors regulate flight dynamics, biologists have wondered?

A new study suggests that insects’ wings may also serve a gyroscopic function—a discovery that sheds new insight on natural flight and could help with developing new sensory systems in engineering.

“I was surprised at the results,” says coauthor Brad Dickerson, a graduate student in biology at the University of Washington. “This idea of wings being gyroscopes has existed for a long time, but this paper is the first to really address how that would be possible.”

Robotic wings

Dickerson and fellow graduate student Annika Eberle conducted the research to determine whether insects could use the bending of their wings to sense rotations of their bodies during flight. This could help explain how these master flyers are able to move with precision and speed.

The pair first developed a computational model of a flapping, flexing, rotating plate. To test their results, they built a robotic model using plastic sheeting mounted on a motor to simulate a flapping wing, then mounted that structure onto a second motor to rotate it.

They discovered that the model wing twisted when flapped and rotated around its base, causing changes in patterns of strain across the wing’s surface. The researchers believe that the strain might stimulate sensors embedded in the wing—suggesting that the wings of flying insects might, as halteres do, provide them with gyroscopic information.

Add sensors?

Eberle, a graduate student in mechanical engineering and the paper’s corresponding author, says the results suggest that additional information about flight dynamics could be gleaned by embedding sensors onto the surface of manufactured wings. In turn, that knowledge could eventually help engineers design more efficient wings for structures such as micro air vehicles, helicopters, and turbines.

But first, Eberle says, more research is needed to determine what relationship exists between animals’ wing flexibility and sensing capability.


“We don’t understand yet what those principles might be,” she says. “These are 10-year visions.”

Published in January in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the research was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Senior authors are Per Reinhall, chair of the mechanical engineering department, and Tom Daniel, professor of biology and director of the new Air Force Center of Excellence on Nature-Inspired Flight Technologies and Ideas. The university’s new center will work toward understanding how elements in nature can inform the development of remotely controlled small aircraft.

Source: University of Washington