During a recent study, researchers found that fruit flies can quickly repair critical wing injuries while maintaining the same stability after losing up to 40 percent of a wing. These findings can inform the design of various robots, which face the same challenge of adapting to adverse conditions in the field.
The Penn State-led team published their results in Science Advances. To conduct the study, the researchers changed the wing length of anesthetized fruit flies, simulating the damage of flying insects. They then stopped the flies with a ring of virtual reality. Mimicking what the flies would see in flight, the researchers played realistic images on small screens in the cage, making the flies move as if they were flying.
“We found that flies compensate for their injuries by flapping the severely injured wing and reducing the healthy speed,” said co-author Jean-Michel Mongeau, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State. “They achieve this by changing signals in their nervous system, allowing them to plan their flight properly even after being injured,” he added.
By flapping their severely damaged wing, flies trade off some efficiency — only a slight decrease — to maintain stability by increasing damping. “When you drive on an asphalt road, friction is maintained between the wheels and the surface, and the car is stable,” said Mongeau, comparing erosion to collisions.
“But on a snowy road, there is less friction between the road and the tires, which causes instability. In this case, the fruit fly, like a driver, actively increases lubrication with its nervous system in an effort to increase stability,” he added. Co-author Bo Cheng, Penn State’s Kenneth K. and Olivia J. Kuo Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering noted that stability is more important than flight performance.
“Under damage, both performance and stability will suffer; however, flies use an ‘internal knob’ that increases damping to maintain the desired stability, even if that leads to a further decrease in performance,” said Cheng, adding, “In fact, it has been shown that indeed stability, instead of the necessary energy, which reduces the movement of flies. The work of researchers suggests that fruit flies, with only 200,000 neurons compared to 100 billion in humans, use a complex motor control system, which allows them to adapt and survive after injury.
“The complexity we have uncovered here in flies is unlike existing engineering systems; “The complexity of the fly is much more complex than the existing flying robots,” said Mongeau. “We still have a long way to go in terms of engineering to try to replicate what we see in nature, and this is another example of how far we have to go,” he added.
With increasingly complex environments, engineers are challenged to design robots that can quickly adapt to errors or irregularities. “Flying insects can inspire the design of flying robots and drones that can intelligently respond to physical damage and remain functional,” said co-author Wael Salem, a Penn State doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering, adding, “For example, designing a drone that can. compensate for a broken engine when an airplane or robot with legs that can rely on its other legs when it runs out of power.”
To test how flies repair wing damage in flight, collaborators at the University of Colorado Boulder created a robotic wing-like machine, roughly the size of a fly. The researchers dissected the mechanical wing, replicated Penn State’s experiment, and tested the connection between the wing and the air.
“With only a mathematical model, we need to make simple assumptions about the structure of the wing, the motion of the wing and the interaction of the wing with the wind to get our calculations right,” said co-author Kaushik Jayaram, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. at the University of Colorado Boulder. He added, “But with a physical model, our robot prototype interacts with the natural world in a manner similar to a fly, under the laws of physics. Thus, this setup captures the complexity of the complex interactions of air wings that we have not yet fully understood.” (NO)
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