Monday, August 10, 2009

Insect Vehicles, Part 1

A few weeks ago, we took a brief look at a vehicle based on a butterfly design (link), but I thought it would be fun to explore the topic of flying insect-based vehicles a little more.

Throughout the history of transportation design, engineers have looked to nature for design analogs: fish for ships, tortoises for armored vehicles, and birds for aircraft. From the time of Leonardo da Vinci onward, many of the concepts for ornithopters were based on birds. Today many of the new semi-autonomous spy drones come from the study of insects.

The dragonfly is an ancient natural design, and it’s a powerful and agile flier. The two sets of wings beat out of phase with each other, making for a smooth ride. Each wingbeat is controlled by a separate nerve impulse, unlike flies and bees, whose wingbeats depend on a pulsating vibration of the upper plates of the thorax.

Recent high speed photography has revealed the secret of how insects fly. They take advantage of minature vortexes in the air to get extra lift—you can feel this effect by moving your hands in “wingbeats” underwater. But in an air medium, insect designs only work at a small scale, for the physics changes as you scale everything up.

This ornithopter maquette is from Dinotopia: The World Beneath. It’s based on the extinct dragonfly Meganeura, with some steampunk elements. I built the maquette with a pine fuselage and cardboard wings, which were mounted over armature wire, much like I did with the Utopiales Lepidopter, so that I could pose them at any angle.
Photo by Robert Seber: link. (Canon 30D, 300mm IS ISO 1600, 1/1600, f/8)
Building the Utopiales maquette, link.


Ginger*:) said...

I have loved watching the evolution of your flying machines. Dragonflies in particular are a favorite of mine...real and imagined. We have a large variety up here in NH. Deep blue with wonderful wings tipped with black dots. They swoop over the lawns and ponds and even sit on our shoulders if we are very still.

Andrew said...

So, if the physics change as you scale up, I guess insect vehicles probably won't work as well as we would like to hope, huh?

This actually makes me wonder then if the bee becomes even more unique in its circumstance, and if its body is taking use of the different physics at that size, since the thing has such a bizarre shape for flight to begin with.

Unknown said...

And they make beautiful art. Really wonderful. I've always wanted to see an ornithopter in real life ever since I read Dune.

Tam said...

Was the ornitopter of Frank Herbert's Novel, Dune, a Dragonfly like aircraft ?