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Flying Robot Bugs

29 Dec

House fly at rest.

A house fly takes off vertically into the air.

While snapping pictures of a fly perched beside me during a long car drive I caught a shot of it in mid take-off, as it launched straight up into the air.  I’d never given a lot of thought to house fly flight dynamics before, except perhaps during miserably failed attempts to swat them.  Attempting to learn more on the topic  led me to a fascinating article discussing the use of insects to develop flying nano-robots, aka Micro air vehicles.

Obviously, I want one of these.

A tiny, insect-inspired flying machine (photo: Wood 2008).

But instead of talking about tiny flying robots being harnessed for military purposes I thought I’d tell you some boring fascinating stuff about insect flight muscles.  The oldest insects (Paleoptera: dragonflies, damselflies, and mayflies) have muscles directly attached to the base of the wing (direct flight).  The fore and hind wings are operated independently, allowing for excellent mobility and maneuvering.  All later insects (Neoptera) have muscles that attach to the exoskeleton, and move the wings indirectly by changing the shape of the thorax (indirect flight).  Generally, the wings function together as a single unit.

Because I was bored, I diagrammed the muscles involved in indirect flight:

The dorsoventral muscles contract, pulling down the top of the thorax and causing the wings to rise.

The dorsolongitudinal indirect flight muscles contract, arching the top of the thorax and causing the wings to beat downwards.

If you have trouble visualizing how flexing the exoskeleton in these directions could lead to the appropriate wing movements, I recommend this simple experiment:  Take a tennis ball, and stick two pins in it to represent the wings.  Squeeze the tennis ball from top and bottom (dorsoventral muscles) and from front and back (dorsolongitudinal indirect flight muscles) and observe the movements of the pins.  We did this back in my Insect Physiology class, and it makes for a very striking visual tool.

Wikipedia also has two very useful animations (the direct flight diagrams is mislabeled, though, so mind your links):

When Bugs Bite Back

20 Apr
Pretty iridescent green eyes of horse fly.

A horse fly perches on a tree.

The family Tabanidae derives its name from the latin word tabanus, meaning “horse fly.”  I’ve noticed that observing which orders and families of insects take their latin names from actual latin or greek words for the insects (e.g. roaches, lice, ants) tends to give an idea of which insects have historically made the biggest nuisances of themselves.  Chalk these biting flies up on that list.

I like horse flies because they turn the tables on entomologists.  I have had several experiences wherein it was unclear just who was hunting whom.  It generally winds up with me flailing wildly with my net while running in circles to try to stay out of reach of the fly.  The lady fly is, after all, on the lookout for a tasty blood meal to grow her eggs with, a meal she will secure by slicing open a wound with scissor-like blades on her proboscis.  She’s also way faster and more agile than me.  It’s extremely disconcerting.

Horse and deer flies can be distinguished from other flies by their large eyes, their enlarged third antennal segment, and by the pair of “Y” shaped wing veins that enclose the wing tip.  Male horse flies, which do not blood feed, generally have eyes that meet in the middle of the head, unlike the lady in the picture above, whose eyes are set apart.

As a side note, my backyard is suddenly full of stable flies, a house fly-like muscid fly which rabidly attacks my ankles when I venture outside.  Ow.  If I’m overcome with masochism I’ll even try to get pictures for y’all.