A new study from the University of Washington indicates that insects’ wings double up as sensitive gyroscopes.
Gyroscopes are used to measure orientation, and are present in many devices, from phones to jets. Despite the precision with which many animals can control their bodies (such as when balancing or flying), we know of few gyroscopes to be found in nature.
Only one group of insects have a functionally similar structure: a pair of wings that have been modified into small club-shaped sensors. These are called halteres, and are found in flies, which are some of the most dextrous aerobats of all.
This new research, supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, indicates that the varying strains put on a wing during flight may stimulate sensors within the wing itself.
Brad Dickerson and Annika Eberle, graduate students at the University of Washington in biology and mechanical engineering respectively, created computer models of moving plates.
Their simulations mimicked the movements of a wing during flight: rotating, flexing, and flapping. To test these results they built a model with a plastic flapping wing and then put that model on a second structure to rotate it.
The results of these models revealed a twisting force during flapping and rotation and changing patterns of strain across the structure. These variations are thought to be measured by sensors embedded within the wing, allowing the insect to better perceive orientation.
The findings of the University of Washington’s new study may lead to great advances in wing design and efficiency, demonstrating the potential value of having sensors on the wing itself to measure flight dynamics.