Dragonflies make the world good with impressive air dynamics

A close up isolated view of a vibrant blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis), using its fine motor skills to perch on a perch. Credit: Grandbrothers/Getty Images

Dragonflies are one of the oldest groups of insects, originated about 325 million years ago, and are known to be highly skilled fliers. Not only are they long-range champions, they also perform a repertoire of complex flight maneuvers.

Just as cats always land on their paws, dragonflies have a way of lifting themselves up when dropped or turned upside down in flight. Performing such movements requires the rapid processing of sensory information while responding with precise body movements.

New research from Cornell University (US), published in Science, used both experimental and computational methods to analyze these flight maneuvers. In the experiments, dragonflies were released from magnetic chains from different orientations, after which the dragonfly’s righting reflexes were captured on high-speed video at 4000 frames per second. Based on these observations, flight simulations in three dimensions were then modeled.

It turns out that dragonflies use the asymmetry of the wing tip, manipulating the angle between the horizon and each of their four individual wings to straighten up again. This technique allows dragonflies to roll their bodies 180 degrees to recover from a fall in a fraction of a second (0.2s).

The team, led by Zhen Jane Wang, also tested the insects’ visual system by blocking their three simple eyes (ocelli) and their two compound eyes. The team found that when the view was blocked, the dragonflies were unable to perform the movements necessary to turn and straighten themselves. This shows that dragonflies rely heavily on these visual cues to calculate their position in space and that the motor reflexes respond accordingly to complete this aerial acrobatics.

This research will not only help us understand insect flight systems, but may also improve the engineering of robotic and mechanical flight technologies. Although we are not quite at the stage of Dune-like ornithopters not yet…

High-speed cameras and CGI technology have revealed the built-in righting mechanisms that dragonflies use when thrown off balance. Credit: Imperial College London

Qamariya Nasrullah

Qamariya Nasrullah

Qamariya Nasrullah has a PhD in evolutionary development from Monash University and an Honors degree in paleontology from Flinders University.

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