With the advent of drones, the desire for flying cars, and all things flight sweeping the globe there is a resurgence of interest in insect flight. Actually, this is a total lie. We assume that scientists have studied the hell out of all kinds of flight, include insect flight, since before science was called science, but whatever. This recent study caught our attention with its bizarre and awesome methodology.
Tiny insects should be stupidly unstable when they fly. They face treacherous air currents, including your desk fan. Humans keep finding that flapping flight is inherently unstable. But, tiny insects rock flying so hard you don’t even know. They show “impressive stability, manoeuverability and robustness, outmaneuvering any man-made flying device.”1
But why?! No one knows, because to figure it out you have to be able to measure all sorts of things about tiny insects. And, shockingly, once you put a leash on a tiny insect it gets all crazy and tries to escape.
Yep, that’s right. These scientists literally glued magnets to flies while they were knocked out by the cold. When they woke up, the researchers used a tiny magnetic pulse to make the flies roll in mid-air…for measurement purposes.
They call this “perturbing the fly.” No, really. For Serious. We couldn’t make this shit up.
Do we have pictures?! Why, yes. We do. Sadly, you can not see the magnets, but this is what it looks like, when flies roll. The lesser known companion piece to Prince’s When Doves Cry.
What did the scientists accomplish with this new technique?
They found out that flies respond really fucking quickly when they are perturbed.
It takes the fly about 5ms to correct a roll. That’s one of the fastest response times in the animal kingdom. Faster than an ant bites. In fact, given that they respond faster than they can process visual information, the scientists are now pretty sure that the flies don’t even use their eyes to respond, they only use their haltere (a special balancing organ).
Also gleaned from this study? Apparently, flies also care a lot more about rolling than about yawing. They respond quite leisurely when perturbed into a yaw, taking 17.5ms to correct it. Perhaps because yawing doesn’t result in getting flipped upside down?
Lastly, the researchers of this study better hope that these flies never find themselves in a teleport, because if they do, they know exactly who they are coming for.
Postscript: Before everyone gets all up in a tizzy – let us remind you – knowing more about the mechanics of insect flight, which is pretty freakin’ mysterious, can only be helpful to human desires for better modes of flight. So this study rocks it out. And, PETA – we know, animal experimentation is a quagmire. But they are fruit flies. So let’s all agree to not be batty about this.
Beatus T, Guckenheimer JM, Cohen I. 2015 “Controlling roll perturbations in fruit flies.” J. R. Soc. Interface 20150075. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2015.0075 ↩