Beetle flight patterns set to inform micro aircraft design

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Flight patterns of the rhinoceros beetle are being used to inform the design of micro aerial vehicles.

Dr MinJun Kim from Drexel University’s Mechanical Engineering Department is leading a team of engineers in researching the function and aerodynamics of the Allomyrina dichotoma beetle.

According to a statement, Kim’s research aims to study the movements of a beetle’s wing by controlling its motion remotely via four electrodes implanted in its body.

The team, working in collaboration with Konkuk University in South Korea, then films the flight of the beetle from take-off to landing while electrical currents direct the extension, contraction, direction and flapping frequency of the wings.

The use of a wind tunnel allows the researchers to see how air currents move around the wings during flight.

‘A quantitative investigation of aerodynamics and wing kinematics in beetle flight will shed new light on the evolution of flapping flight in nature,’ Kim said. ‘Furthermore, experimental study of the aerodynamic performance of beetles in forward/hovering flight will provide insight into designs for efficient and stable flapping-wing micro aerial vehicles.’

In the rhinoceros beetle, Kim’s team has found what could be the perfect candidate for the controlled study of biological flight capabilities.

The beetle’s size, 7–9cm as an adult, is large enough to allow engineers to harmlessly implant electrodes in both optic lobes, the central nervous system and abdomen.

It is also powerful for its size, having the ability to take flight directly from the ground, which is rare among smaller insects.

‘Use of biologically inspired approaches in the aerospace engineering community, motivated by an interest in micro aerial vehicles, has been increasing rapidly,’ Kim said. ‘Although microfabrication techniques are advancing, it remains a challenge to fabricate separate individual machinery parts and develop millimetre-scale battery systems for aerodynamic manoeuvrability. An alternative approach is to directly utilise the insect itself. They are easily “manufactured”, and — by nature — self-contained and easy to fuel.’