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© Dr Huai-Ti Lin and Igor Siwanowicz

Dragonfly wings could inspire new aeroplane flight control

Scientists are studying the way dragonflies fly in the hope of making small planes more stable and robust.

Dragonflies are some of the most mobile insects on the planet. They can control the angle and speed of each of their four wings independently to fly in any direction, hover and perform acrobatic manoeuvres.

Unlike most other flying insects, dragonflies beat their wings up and down instead of the more usual back-and-forth motion.

Crucially, they can change the movement and rotation of each wing to vary the aerodynamic forces acting on it. 

 

Dragonflies control their flight with precision, even in windy and unpredictable conditions, because their wings are living structures containing hundreds of sensory neurons. These neurons provide constant sensory feedback to the brain, allowing the insects to move through turbulence without a hitch.

Making wings alive

Bioengineers are now trying to understand this feedback system, to inspire new control strategies in modern aviation.

Combining electrophysiology at Imperial College and micro-CT scanning at the Museum to study the wing closely, scientists have an ambitious goal: to make aircraft wings 'live', too. This means designing aircrafts with wings that could sense and respond to changing conditions automatically and independently. 

A close-up view of a green dragonfly head during flight.

Dragonflies stay stable during flight even in unpredictable conditions © Huai-Ti Lin.

 

Dr Huai-Ti Lin, a researcher and lecturer in bioengineering at Imperial College London, says, 'Unlike an aeroplane wing, the dragonfly wing is a living structure with a neural network that is intricately integrated into the mechanical structure. 

'Conventional aircraft wing design is based on pre-computed aerodynamic models. It is very rigid, with little adaptability. These wings cannot deal efficiently with unpredictable air flow or extreme flight environments. Our bio-inspired approach will allow aeroplanes to cope with varied environments.

'This work will be particularly important for small aircrafts and drones. It can also make wind turbines more efficient and flexible.'

A pinned dragonfly specimen from the Museum collections.

A pinned dragonfly specimen from the Museum collections.

 

Learn more

Dr Lin and Museum dragonfly curator Dr Ben Price are exhibiting their work at the Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition 2018.

The team are building metre-long, interactive 3D models of dragonfly wings to highlight some of the mechanosensors on the wing. The exhibition runs from Monday 2 until Sunday 8 July 2018.

More information