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Insects Fly in the Face of Airplane Aerodynamic Laws

Scientists develop a new law to describe the maneuvers of flying insects

| 2 min read

Scientists develop a new law to describe the maneuvers of flying insects

Flying insects do not obey the same laws of aerodynamics as airplanes, according to a study published in the journal Physical Review Fluids.

When an airplane soars through the sky, a force known as aerodynamic drag opposes its forward motion. As the plane moves faster, that drag force becomes exponentially stronger.

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"To double its flight speed, an airplane must increase its thrust four-fold to counter the stronger wind resistance," study lead scientist Leif Ristroph from New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences explains in a press release.

"In contrast, we found that flapping wings have a drag that is in direct proportion to its flight speed — to go twice as fast, an insect simply needs to double its thrust."

To better understand this discrepancy, the researchers built a robotic wing apparatus. They compared the steady motion of an airplane wing to the maneuvers of an insect wing, which beats hundreds of times per second during flight.

Back-and-forth wing-flapping motions evidently cause the drag to resist the flying insect’s movement in some instances, and help push it forward in others. The resulting net force depends on the flight speed as well as the specifics of the flapping motion, all of which the authors include in their new drag law.

The authors believe that their findings could help inspire the design of tiny flying robots that mimic the movements of insects.

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