Monday, May 24, 2010

An Artificial Butterfly Takes its Flight!

A tiny artificial butterfly takes flight in a new high-speed video.
Engineers Hiroto Tanaka and Isao Shimoyama of Harvard University and University of Tokyo, respectively, created the tiny butterfly to try to understand the biomechanics of butterfly flight.
But the tiny machine may not teach us too much about how butterflies actually row through the air, said Robert Dudley, a physiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, co-author of the research to be published May 20 in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.
“As a technical accomplishment, this work is impressive, but there are a number of aerodynamic and biological issues that need further attention,” Dudley wrote in an e-mail to
Butterfly flight is somewhat mysterious because it’s roughly the opposite of “as the crow flies.” Butterflies flit about rather than flying in a straight line. That actually costs them more energy, Dudley said, so scientists assume their looping flying serves some evolutionary purpose.
“The advantage is that it’s thought to be an anti-predator behavior,” Dudley said. “The claim is that irregular flight paths are a permanent signal of prey unprofitability.”
Would-be predators presumably take one look at the chaotic, loopy butterfly flight and decide to go after easier to predict snacks.
The Japanese researchers somewhat capture this oscillating type of flight with their plastic-winged flyer, but Dudley argued that the differences between the bot and a real butterfly are so great as to invalidate the biological lessons the researchers try to draw.
“There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this approach but it severely limits any claims to the biology,” Dudley said.

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