The only times I’ve ever watched a fly beat its wings were in order to predict the appropriate moment to strike and kill it. But it turns out that flies are actually highly evolved little miracles of nature, at least when it comes to the way they fly. Their “steering muscles,” located in the thorax, are some of the most complex and efficient mechanisms in the natural world–and they’re about to teach humans how to build better micro-drones.
Using a powerful 3-D X-ray scanner, scientists from Oxford University, the Imperial College London, and the Paul Scherrer Institute have published videos simulating the insides of flies as they beat their wings more than 150 times a second. The steering muscles, which only make up 3% of the flies’ body mass, pump out a disproportionate amount of power to the wings when flies “brake” on one side, sending more energy to the churning muscles.
Most man-made flight designs, by comparison, simply bend and contract. But the flies’ tiny steering muscles, which work together in a symphony of one-dimensional motions to move the animals through space, required some 300 million years of “evolutionary refinement,” according to the researchers. The scientists, who published their report on the mechanism in PLoS Biology, predict that this discovery could lead to an entirely new era of “micro air vehicle,” inspired by the small mechanical engines of fly muscles.