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For Military Researchers, the Butterfly Is the Ultimate Drone [Video]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Butterflies are not merely beautiful. They use a complex pattern of rapid wing flapping and body deformation to execute impressive aerial acrobatics. This ability has not escaped the U.S. military, which is turning to these insects for ideas on how to create ever-smaller drone aircraft to execute reconnaissance, search-and-rescue and environmental monitoring missions. [View a slide show featuring different drones used by the U.S. military.]

The Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio is testing drones less than 60 centimeters long—roughly the wingspan of an Atlantic Puffin—with the hope they will be able to operate below rooftop levels in city streets.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, with help from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and National Science Foundation funding, are now working on ways to shrink drones down to only a few centimeters. Using high-speed, high-resolution video techniques they have mathematically documented the trajectory and body conformation of painted lady butterflies.

The researchers captured the flight dynamics of the butterflies, which flap their wings about 25 times per second, using three high-speed video cameras. Each camera can record 3,000 one-megapixel images per second, compared with a standard video camera that shoots 24, 30 or 60 frames per second. Lead researcher Tiras Lin and his colleagues positioned the three cameras in a glass tank, released several butterflies and then snapped about 6,000 3-D images of the insects’ flight maneuvers.

“We learned that changes in moment of inertia, which is a property associated with mass distribution, plays an important role in insect flight, just as arm and leg motion does for ice skaters and divers,” Lin said in a press release. For his next project, Lin is setting his sights even smaller—on better understanding how fruit flies are land upside down on perches, which could suggest ways of improving the maneuverability of micro aerial vehicles, or MAVs.

The Defense Department is also funding mini drone work out in the field. In particular, AeroVironment, Inc. is developing hummingbird-like robots that weigh less than 20 grams. These Nano Air Vehicles (NAVs), as the company calls them, are 16 centimeters long, capable of climbing and descending vertically, flying sideways left and right, and flying forward and backward. They can also rotate clockwise and counter-clockwise under remote control while carrying a small video camera. Lockheed Martin, Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc., and MicroPropulsion Corp. likewise have Defense Department contracts to develop NAVs.

Image courtesy of Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. toffer99 7:14 am 02/3/2012

    “Roughly the wingspan of an Atlantic Puffin”. What a weird comparison to use.
    Oh, Hang on while I get my Atlantic Puffin out of its cage to check that span.
    “This Atlantic Puffin is dead, it is deceased…” fill in the rest yourselves.

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  2. 2. QuantumQualifax 11:25 am 02/3/2012

    “…capable of climbing and descending vertically, flying sideways left and right, and flying forward and backward. They can also rotate clockwise and counter-clockwise…”

    Such a windy way of saying
    “…capable of hovering and flying three dimensionally…”

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  3. 3. QuantumQualifax 11:32 am 02/3/2012

    …or simply
    “…possessing three-dimensional maneuverability.”

    Today’s journalists lack language skills, compared to their ancestors. This is especially disturbing in regards to science journalists. I wonder how many people question the informational veracity of an article simply because it’s poorly written.

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  4. 4. Ahimsa_Fruitarian 7:03 pm 02/5/2012

    I wonder whether the very small butterfly robots could be easily adapted to work in ecosystems – though not permanently – but for initial set-up of new ecosystems and have a role to report on the health of plants and seedlings growing that are often attacked by other elements in nature. The biggest problem on Earth for millions of years apparently, has been lack of peace in nature – even before humans came along, there was nothing in nature had the power to fix the problem. I want robots that can help to set up new designer ecosystems. That could start a trend for peace in nature. I am not arguing for a principle, rather a sustainable environment that allows advancement of science so we can survive and have capacity to live fully. Who agrees that the current problem is if funding for robots is only for work in civilizations rather than work in ecosystems. Look, if you had the best designer ecosystem – what would it not do for you?
    Who wants to join a movement to adapt robotics to work in new ecosystem set-up?

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  5. 5. oscar867 6:30 am 02/10/2012

    Gotta marvel that all the critics are down here in the cheap seats making comments rather then up above writing the articles…

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  6. 6. upload70 8:43 am 10/5/2012

    the idea of robotic insects spying on us is pretty scary.

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