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Concept: Aerospace engineering


Insect- and bird-size drones-micro air vehicles (MAV) that can perform autonomous flight in natural and man-made environments are now an active and well-integrated research area. MAVs normally operate at a low speed in a Reynolds number regime of 10(4)-10(5) or lower, in which most flying animals of insects, birds and bats fly, and encounter unconventional challenges in generating sufficient aerodynamic forces to stay airborne and in controlling flight autonomy to achieve complex manoeuvres. Flying insects that power and control flight by flapping wings are capable of sophisticated aerodynamic force production and precise, agile manoeuvring, through an integrated system consisting of wings to generate aerodynamic force, muscles to move the wings and a control system to modulate power output from the muscles. In this article, we give a selective review on the state of the art of biomechanics in bioinspired flight systems in terms of flapping and flexible wing aerodynamics, flight dynamics and stability, passive and active mechanisms in stabilization and control, as well as flapping flight in unsteady environments. We further highlight recent advances in biomimetics of flapping-wing MAVs with a specific focus on insect-inspired wing design and fabrication, as well as sensing systems.This article is part of the themed issue ‘Moving in a moving medium: new perspectives on flight’.

Concepts: Insect, Aerodynamics, Bat, Drag, Flight, Wing, Flying and gliding animals, Aerospace engineering


Small-winged drones can face highly varied aerodynamic requirements, such as high manoeuvrability for flight among obstacles and high wind resistance for constant ground speed against strong headwinds that cannot all be optimally addressed by a single aerodynamic profile. Several bird species solve this problem by changing the shape of their wings to adapt to the different aerodynamic requirements. Here, we describe a novel morphing wing design composed of artificial feathers that can rapidly modify its geometry to fulfil different aerodynamic requirements. We show that a fully deployed configuration enhances manoeuvrability while a folded configuration offers low drag at high speeds and is beneficial in strong headwinds. We also show that asymmetric folding of the wings can be used for roll control of the drone. The aerodynamic performance of the morphing wing is characterized in simulations, in wind tunnel measurements and validated in outdoor flights with a small drone.

Concepts: Aerodynamics, Reynolds number, Drag, Flight, Wing, Lift, Aircraft, Aerospace engineering


Smart Morphable Surfaces enable switchable and tunable aerodynamic drag reduction of bluff bodies. Their topography, resembling the morphology of golf balls, can be custom-generated through a wrinkling instability on a curved surface. Pneumatic actuation of these patterns results in the control of the drag coefficient of spherical samples by up to a factor of two, over a range of flow conditions.

Concepts: Fluid dynamics, Aerodynamics, Differential geometry, Reynolds number, Drag, Aerospace engineering


Gliding flight is a relatively inexpensive mode of flight used by many larger bird species, where potential energy is used to cover the cost of aerodynamic drag. Birds have great flexibility in their flight configuration, allowing them to control their flight speed and glide angle. However, relatively little is known about how this flexibility affects aerodynamic drag.We measured the wake of a jackdaw (Corvus monedula) gliding in a wind tunnel, and computed the components of aerodynamic drag from the wake. We found that induced drag was mainly affected by wingspan, but also that the use of the tail has a negative influence on span efficiency. Contrary to previous work, we found no support for the separated primaries being used in controlling the induced drag. Profile drag was of similar magnitude to that reported in other studies, and our results suggest that profile drag is affected by variation in wing shape. For a folded tail the body drag coefficient had a value of 0.2, rising to above 0.4 with the tail fully spread, which we conclude is due to tail profile drag.

Concepts: Aerodynamics, Force, Flight, Wing, Flying and gliding animals, Jackdaw, Corvus, Aerospace engineering


Motivated by the lack of research in tailless morphing aircraft in addition to the current inability to measure the resultant aerodynamic forces and moments of bird control maneuvers, this work aims to develop and test a multi-functional morphing control surface based on the horizontal tail of birds for a low-radar-signature UAV. Customized Macro Fiber Composite (MFC) actuators were designed to achieve yaw control across a range of sideslip angles by inducing three dimensional curvature as a result of bending-twisting coupling, a well-known phenomenon in classical fiber composite theory. This allows for yaw control, pitch control, and limited air break control. The structural response of the customized actuators was determined numerically using both a piezoelectric and an equivalent thermal model in order to optimize the fiber direction to allow for maximized deflection in both the vertical and lateral directions. In total, three control configurations were tested experimentally: symmetric deflection for pitch control, single-sided deflection for yaw control, and antisymmetric deflection for air brake control. A Reynolds-averaged-Navier-Stokes (RANS) fluid simulation was also developed to compare with the experimental results for the unactuated baseline configuration. The actuator was shown to provide better yaw control than traditional split aileron methods, remain effective in larger sideslip angles, and provide directional yaw stability when unactuated. Furthermore, it was shown to provide adequate pitch control in sideslip in addition to limited air brake capabilities. This design is proposed to provide complete aircraft control in concert with spanwise morphing wings.

Concepts: Aerodynamics, Fixed-wing aircraft, Configuration management, Aviation terminology, Aerospace engineering, Sideslip angle, Empennage


We report the effects of posture and morphology on the static aerodynamic stability and control effectiveness of physical models based on the feathered dinosaur, [Formula: see text]Microraptor gui, from the Cretaceous of China. Postures had similar lift and drag coefficients and were broadly similar when simplified metrics of gliding were considered, but they exhibited different stability characteristics depending on the position of the legs and the presence of feathers on the legs and the tail. Both stability and the function of appendages in generating maneuvering forces and torques changed as the glide angle or angle of attack were changed. These are significant because they represent an aerial environment that may have shifted during the evolution of directed aerial descent and other aerial behaviors. Certain movements were particularly effective (symmetric movements of the wings and tail in pitch, asymmetric wing movements, some tail movements). Other appendages altered their function from creating yaws at high angle of attack to rolls at low angle of attack, or reversed their function entirely. While [Formula: see text]M. gui lived after [Formula: see text]Archaeopteryx and likely represents a side experiment with feathered morphology, the general patterns of stability and control effectiveness suggested from the manipulations of forelimb, hindlimb and tail morphology here may help understand the evolution of flight control aerodynamics in vertebrates. Though these results rest on a single specimen, as further fossils with different morphologies are tested, the findings here could be applied in a phylogenetic context to reveal biomechanical constraints on extinct flyers arising from the need to maneuver.

Concepts: Aerodynamics, Drag, Dinosaur, Feather, Lift, Airfoil, Angle of attack, Aerospace engineering


Foldable wings of insects are the ultimate deployable structures and have attracted the interest of aerospace engineering scientists as well as entomologists. Rove beetles are known to fold their wings in the most sophisticated ways that have right-left asymmetric patterns. However, the specific folding process and the reason for this asymmetry remain unclear. This study reveals how these asymmetric patterns emerge as a result of the folding process of rove beetles. A high-speed camera was used to reveal the details of the wing-folding movement. The results show that these characteristic asymmetrical patterns emerge as a result of simultaneous folding of overlapped wings. The revealed folding mechanisms can achieve not only highly compact wing storage but also immediate deployment. In addition, the right and left crease patterns are interchangeable, and thus each wing internalizes two crease patterns and can be folded in two different ways. This two-way folding gives freedom of choice for the folding direction to a rove beetle. The use of asymmetric patterns and the capability of two-way folding are unique features not found in artificial structures. These features have great potential to extend the design possibilities for all deployable structures, from space structures to articles of daily use.

Concepts: Insect, Beetle, Wing, Insect wing, Polyphaga, Aleochara, Rove beetle, Aerospace engineering


During high-speed pursuit of prey, the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) has been observed to swing its tail while manoeuvring (e.g. turning or braking) but the effect of these complex motions is not well understood. This study demonstrates the potential of the cheetah’s long, furry tail to impart torques and forces on the body as a result of aerodynamic effects, in addition to the well-known inertial effects. The first-order aerodynamic forces on the tail are quantified through wind tunnel testing and it is observed that the fur nearly doubles the effective frontal area of the tail without much mass penalty. Simple dynamic models provide insight into manoeuvrability via simulation of pitch, roll and yaw tail motion primitives. The inertial and quasi-steady state aerodynamic effects of tail actuation are quantified and compared by calculating the angular impulse imparted onto the cheetah’s body and its shown aerodynamic effects contribute to the tail’s angular impulse, especially at the highest forward velocities.

Concepts: Effectiveness, Torque, Aerodynamics, Force, Cheetah, Fixed-wing aircraft, Wind tunnel, Aerospace engineering


Postural stability of older subjects can be estimated during orthostatic equilibrium. However, dynamic equilibrium is also important to investigate risks of fall. It implies different interpretations of measures given by force plates. Same dependant variables (e.g. center of pressure displacement) cannot be interpreted the same ways depending of the type of equilibrium that is investigated. In particular, sways increases during dynamic equilibrium and before movement execution may reflect an improvement of feedforward control.

Concepts: Improve, Torque, Thermodynamics, Orthostatic hypotension, Interpretation, Feed-forward, Balance, Aerospace engineering


Flying insects have evolved sophisticated sensory-motor systems, and here we argue that such systems are used to keep upright against intrinsic flight instabilities. We describe a theory that predicts the instability growth rate in body pitch from flapping-wing aerodynamics and reveals two ways of achieving balanced flight: active control with sufficiently rapid reactions and passive stabilization with high body drag. By glueing magnets to fruit flies and perturbing their flight using magnetic impulses, we show that these insects employ active control that is indeed fast relative to the instability. Moreover, we find that fruit flies with their control sensors disabled can keep upright if high-drag fibres are also attached to their bodies, an observation consistent with our prediction for the passive stability condition. Finally, we extend this framework to unify the control strategies used by hovering animals and also furnish criteria for achieving pitch stability in flapping-wing robots.

Concepts: Scientific method, Insect, Systems theory, Aerodynamics, Flying and gliding animals, Insect flight, Aerospace engineering