The aerodynamics and flight performance of insects
Institute of Physics in Scotland, Edinburgh Programme – 2011 / 12
Abstract: Mankind has been airborne for over one hundred years and advances in aeronautics during that time have been immense. Yet despite our wealth of knowledge in fundamental and applied aerodynamics we are still unable to recreate the performance exhibited by flying animals. Needless to say, they have had quite some head start over us. In the 350 million years since insects first took flight, Natural Selection has diversified a common ancestor that most resembled a modern day dragonfly into countless species and the rich assortment of shapes and sizes we see today - each one locally optimized and tuned for the tasks that define its ecological niche. Familiar trade-offs between, say, stability and manoeuvrability can be found, but in this small-scale, unsteady world, aerodynamic mechanisms we deem unconventional are, in fact, commonplace and traditional aircraft design practices are often rejected. I will highlight some of the peculiarities found in insect flight, illustrating these examples with case studies and describing the experiments that we use to reveal the mechanisms. Finally I will ask if we can learn anything that could be incorporated into the manned or unmanned air vehicles of the future.