TOPICS > Science > Breakthroughs

How studying insects may lead to smarter drones

July 17, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
When you watch an insect fly in slow motion, you get a whole new perspective on the complexity of movement and engineering. A new collaborative research project, funded by the U.S. Air Force, is devoted to studying how insects and animals fly so that humans can build smarter, more efficient aircraft. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Aviation technology continues to evolve, and in recent years, there’s been a big push by both private companies and the military to make more sophisticated pilotless aircraft or drones.

A new research project led by the University of Washington is part of that effort and it aims to uncover the aeronautical secrets of some of nature’s best designed flyers, insects.

Hari Sreenivasan has our report. It’s part of our Breakthroughs series on invention and innovation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Have you ever watched a bee fly? Really watched them closely? Or studied a butterfly or dragonfly darting around your garden?

With the naked eye, it’s often hard to see how they are flying, with tiny wings that can flap hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of times a minute. But when you watch in slow motion with the help of a high-speed camera, you get a whole new perspective on the mysterious, and incredibly complex world, of insect flight.

So how does a bee with such a giant body and such tiny wings actually fly?

TOM DANIEL, University of Washington: It beats its wings really fast, and you can’t even see that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tom Daniel is a biology professor at the University of Washington who has long studied bees and all sorts of flying insects. He says there’s a lot scientists have learned about bees over hundreds of years of study, but there is much more to learn about how exactly they fly.

TOM DANIEL: The sensory information coming off the wing is probably providing gyroscopic data. The interesting thing is the wings are moving so fast, they are probably exquisitely sensitive to the rotations.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Whether bees and other insects have built-in gyroscopes in their wings is one of the questions Tom Daniel is now trying to answer…

TOM DANIEL: If they are tracking temperature, you need to know the spatial temporal geometry.

HARI SREENIVASAN: … as director of a new collaborative research project funded by the United States Air Force called the Center for Excellence on Nature-Inspired Flight Technologies and Ideas.

Daniel says the scientists on the team and the military have a shared goal: to better understand how insects and animals fly, so that humans can build smarter, more efficient aircraft.

TOM DANIEL: We look to nature. Are there ideas and principles that nature is using to solve hard flight control problems? Can we use those ideas to inspire new technologies, and can we use technology to deepen our understanding of how nature solves its problems?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Research is now under way at several universities around the country and in Europe.

Among the test subjects: bats at Johns Hopkins and crane flies at Case Western Reserve University, and at Tom Daniel’s lab at the University of Washington, these hawk moths. This is a video slowed down of one of those moths that’s feeding from a flower. Like a hummingbird, the moth has to make hundreds of tiny corrections every second with a passing breeze, in order to stay perfectly aligned with the flower, a natural feat science and technology cannot come close to replicating.

And that’s part of what fascinates researchers like Daniel.

TOM DANIEL: I pop this down on top.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On the day we visited, Daniel was prepping one of the moths for an experiment by carefully gluing a tiny metal rod to its back.

TOM DANIEL: And off you go.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He then attached the moth to a piece of equipment that allows him to track how the moth navigates this virtual forest projected in front of it.

TOM DANIEL: What I have here is a moth that’s attached to effectively a joystick.


TOM DANIEL: So, if the moth tries to turn right or turn left, we will measure it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, the moth thinks it’s flying?

TOM DANIEL: It thinks it’s flying. So, what we’re really interested in doing is asking, how does it process information and accomplish tight maneuvers in a complex habitat? With a tiny brain, they’re accomplishing maneuvers that we can’t get any aircraft to do.

As we look to various devices to help us guide airplanes and aircraft, how could you build systems that could actually navigate in cluttered environments, navigate safely? How could you build a little quad rotor to move around in a little forest?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Daniel’s lab is often literally buzzing. His team of graduates and postdoctoral students run a variety of experiments aimed at understanding how insects process information around them and use that information to control their flight.

ELISCHA SANDERS, University of Washington neurobiology graduate: We know how to make things fly, but how things fly, I think, is a much grander question.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Elischa Sanders is a neurobiology graduate who is studying how moths’ nervous system react to external stimuli. Sanders says what he and his colleagues are learning about the moth’s nervous system applies to much more.

ELISCHA SANDERS: I like to think of it kind of as learning a different language. We know the wing is talking to the brain to talk back to the wing so that it can maintain flight, but we don’t know what they’re saying.

And much in the same way that it goes on for the moth, it goes on in humans as well. We’re trying to crack that code or understand the language of the nervous system, so that we can, you know, better the technologies for humanity.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Designing experiments to study tiny creatures and even smaller fragile wing structures is no easy task. So, one of group of students in the lab has built a robotic insect wing called the Flapper.

ANNIKA EBERLE, University of Washington mechanical engineering graduate student: Insect wings are very complex structures. We can use these very simple models in order to understand the underlying principles that govern insect flight.

THOMAS MOHREN, University of Washington, visiting mechanical engineering graduate student: There are so many things that even for the smallest of simplest insects that we don’t know about. We don’t know how they sense pretty much anything. We don’t know how they sense their velocity, their rotation, their orientation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While the scientists here are focused on advancing basic science, their research could one day lead to a future with smarter and more drones above us, a concerning prospect for some.

The U.S. Air Force, which is providing up to $9 million for Daniel’s project over the next six years, has said their primary goals are to develop better control systems for drones and make aircraft more efficient. But through its own research program, the Air Force has in the past explored the use of robots that mimic insects and birds for surveillance and targeting.

NARRATOR: Small size and agile flight will enable micro-air vehicles to covertly enter locations inaccessible by traditional means of aerial surveillance.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While the Air Force is not currently pursuing the development of those robots, similar technology could eventually one day play a role in the battlefield.

Tom Daniel has not been involved with the military’s program. But he acknowledges the technology that may stem from his team’s research will have a variety of uses.

TOM DANIEL: Just like any technology, there are uses that are for more offensive, there are uses for defensive, and there are uses for exploration.

So you can imagine a scenario of an earthquake in a building completely mostly destroyed, and you can’t get any normal robotic system or any human in there. How can you build something that is capable of looking for survivors, looking for sights of danger? So, I look at technology generally as, there are great uses, there are socially wonderful uses, and there are some more technically challenging uses.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Hari Sreenivasan in Seattle, Washington.