Insect Wings May Serve Gyroscopic Function

Gyroscopes measure rotation in everyday technologies, from unmanned aerial vehicles to cell phone screen stabilizers. Though many animals can move with more precision and accuracy than our best-engineered aircraft and technologies, gyroscopes are rarely found in nature. Scientists know of just one group of insects, the group including flies, that has something that behaves like a gyroscope -- sensors called halteres, clublike structures that evolved from wings. Halteres provide information about the rotation of the body during flight, which helps flies perform aerial acrobatics and maintain stability and direction. But how do other insects without these sensors regulate flight dynamics, biologists have wondered? University of Washington (UW) research suggests that insects' wings may also serve a gyroscopic function -- a discovery that sheds new insight on natural flight and could help with developing new sensory systems in engineering. Published online on January 28, 2015 in an open-access article in Interface, the research was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. It was a key part of the successful proposal for an Air Force Center of Excellence on Nature-Inspired Flight Technologies and Ideas, a new UW center focused on understanding how elements in nature can inform the development of remotely controlled small aircraft. "I was surprised at the results," said Brad Dickerson, a graduate student in biology and co-author of the study. "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." Dickerson and another UW graduate student, Annika Eberle, conducted the research seeking to determine whether insects could use the bending of their wings to sense rotations of their bodies during flight.
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