Fly Guys

2 min read

For most of us, the sight of houseflies zooming around the kitchen or executing precision landings on top of freshly baked bread unleashes a primal urge to kill, maim, or dismember these germy little creatures. Not so for Rafaſ Żbikowski and his colleagues [see " Fly Like a Fly" in this issue], who want to know how these insects are able to carry out their aerial acrobatics. The researchers are taking the lessons they learn from Musca domestica to try to build something called a micro air vehicle, or MAV, a tiny flapping-wing robot that could be used for military reconnaissance, disaster rescue efforts, or other kinds of work requiring remote sensing.

Nothing succeeds like success. And houseflies have plenty of it to share. At low speeds, for example, the fly can outmaneuver any human-built craft, reaching speeds of up to 50 kilometers per hour and accelerations of 3 g's. And it can fly straight up, down, or backward, and somersault to land upside down on a ceiling.

To understand the fly's unique flight control scheme from the fly's point of view, Żbikowski and his associates are building a tiny movie theater for their flies, complete with a panoramic screen and a tiny rotating cage to house the flies. Next year, they'll start showing the insects movies of flight scenes and begin observing how the flies' neurons light up in response to these pictures.

Although it sounds a bit like a skit from the British comedy group Monty Python, this kind of experimental work has quite a bit of precedent. Indeed, a 1959 paper published in the Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers , one of the IEEE's precursor associations, helped set the stage for the work described here. "What the Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain," written by cyberneticists Jerry Lettvin, Humberto Maturana, Warren McCulloch, and Walter Pitts, established that different neurons in the frog's brain responded to different features in the frog's environment. Frogs don't see much, but what little they do see is enough to help them catch bugs (small dark moving spots) and escape predators (larger moving dark areas). Elsewhere, in a series of landmark experiments conducted from the 1950s to the 1970s, David Hubel and Torsten Weisel showed various images to experimental animals and discovered that an animal's visual cortex contains a spatial map of its visual field. They received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1981 for their discoveries concerning "information processing in the visual system."

Turning to nature for scientific and technological inspiration is not new, and you could argue that most human-made designs are derived from natural phenomena. And why not take full advantage? As engineer Buckminster Fuller once remarked, "In nature, technology has already been at work for millions of years."

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