Analyzing butterflies for next generation micro robots

U.S. defense agencies are supporting the development of insect-sized robots for reconnaissance missions.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

Researchers at John Hopkins University are studying the aerial movement of painted lady butterflies in an attempt to further refine small robotic engineering.

Tiras Lin, an Undergraduate engineer at the university, is part of a team that are hoping to improve the next generation of insect-sized robots with flying capability by trying to unravel the secrets of insect flight and maneuverability.

The research was funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation. In terms of the Air Force, the agency probably saw potential in the work that could be used to improve insect-sized robotics which may be useful in reconnaissance missions, searches, and conducting environmental surveys.

The tiny robots are known as MAVs -- or micro aerial vehicles. The aim of the research was to improve the speed and motion capabilities of these tiny aerial systems. Perhaps, this is one area in engineering which is currently lacking. As Tiras Lin said:

"One area that is currently lacking in modern micro-aerial vehicle design is their maneuverability. So we looked at nature for inspiration -- what can we learn from the flight of an insect, and specifically for this lab, the flight of a butterfly?"

The research is being supervised by Professor Rajat Mittal, Vice chair of the Dept. of Mechanical Engineering at John Hopkins University.

As it is difficult to see how butterflies conduct complex aerial maneuvers with the naked eye, the researchers recorded their flight paths in order to analyse them at various speeds. By doing so, the team were able to study both the body contortions and trajectory of their butterfly subjects.

Three video cameras capable of recording 3,000 images per second were used in the study. Comparatively, a normal camera is able to shoot approximately 24 - 60 frames per second.

Through the use of such technology, Tiras Lin has found that butterflies change their weight distribution and use their wings to change speed in a similar way that ice-skaters do when they wish to complete a complex maneuver. Butterflies alter their moment of inertia in the same manner as a skater -- shifting their weight distribution in relation to their body axis to regulate or quicken their rate of movement.

The team at John Hopkins believe this research will alter how we study insect movement in the future, but more importantly, will push the boundaries of what can be done with small robotic models. It is hoped that this research will be considered by current MAV designers who could benefit from additional knowledge.

Lin's new project goes even further, as he is now attempting to solve how fruit flies can land upside down on surfaces.

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