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Gyroscopic Wings: Why Technology Can't Top Nature Just Yet

Mar 21, 2015 06:47 PM EDT

Past research has shown again and again that even as engineers take their cues from animals, they cannot even begin to hope to approach nature's perfection in flight. No a new study is helping peel back some of the mystery as to how many insects maintain near-effortless pin-point turning while on wing. The results could help experts develop the next generation of air-worthy drones.

Research has revealed to scientists that craneflies in particular achieve their amazing pinpoint turns and mid-air hovers thanks to tiny gyroscope-like sensors called halteres - tiny knob structures that protrude just below the insect's wing pair, which likely evolved from a second set of wings.

The little knobs provide information about rotation of the body during flight, allowing flies to keep track of how they are positioned even as they perform the impressive aerial acrobatics and stability that they are capable of.

However, not all insects have these tiny structures, and experts have long-wondered how they too can pull off in-flight perfection. Now, a study recently published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface has revealed that some insects' wings are structured with their own built-in gyroscopic function.

That's a revelation that could change how engineers look at wings, and could streamline sensor-systems for the next generation of drones.

Brad Dickerson, who co-authored the study admitted in a recent release that he was actually surprised with the success of the work.

"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," he said.

According to the study, Dickerson and Annika Eberele from the University of Washington determined how this works only after creating a computational model of a flapping insect wing. After a long series of simulations, they determined that as a wing flaps, its surface bends and warps, causing changes in patterns of strain across the wing's surface.

The strain pattern then stimulates nervous sensors embedded within the wing itself, providing the necessary information for the fly to keep itself 'flying right.'

Still, the research pair added that this is just the beginning. As part of a "10-year vision," the team plans to look into the exact placement of these natural sensors and how varied wing flexibility can influence how it works.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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