Moths Show Researchers How to Hover

Animals are often  studied to shed light on the origin of physical skills, such as the efficiency with which a cockroach scurries or the sonar-guided flight of bats.  One engineering feat that has always been admired by humans is the ability to hover in flight.  We have built machines that do this fairly well, such as helicopters, but there is plenty of room for improvement.

Fortunately, there is the homely yet acrobatically gifted moth.  Researchers chose the moth for its hovering skills because it is a relatively large flying insect that is “incredibly good at hovering,” according to Dr. Jonathan Dhyr from the University of Washington.  Dr. Dhyr recently published his moth research in The Journal of Experimental Biology

The goal of studying moths is to learn how we can build better hovering machines, perhaps mini-robots that could hover as they perform essential repair or maintenance tasks.  This recent research used super-slow motion cameras to capture the moth’s response to a changing environment that mimicked a flight simulator.

“If it started pitching up,” Dr Dyhr explained, “it would move its abdomen up, and that will cause its centre of mass to change.”  Other observations showed the moth making fine adjustments to airflow, resulting in a balance of thrust and lift.

Dr Dhyr noted, “We’ve got to collaborate with engineers and use [these] really unique methods to answer very basic biological question.”

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