The Fantastic Flying Machines of Nature
Scientists who want to understand both hovering and light track ability are looking to the moth for answers. This member of the Lepidoptera order possess highly developed abilities to hover and track a moving object, two skills highly coveted by their human observers.
A new generation of robots are being engineered for a variety of purposes, and the “small, flying” type will largely be modeled from insect movements.
Moths are common, with 160,000 species known. They can grow fairly large, and share many traits with their nearest relative, the more celebrated butterfly. They are experts at hovering, in all sorts of conditions.
“There has been a lot of interest in understanding how animals deal with challenging sensing environments, especially when they are also doing difficult tasks like hovering in mid-air,” said Simon Sponberg, an assistant professor in the School of Physics and School of Applied Physiology at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “This is also a very significant challenge for micro air vehicles.”
Moths are able to capitalize on whatever light is available, via a specialized eye structure, but scientists have also wondered if they have some means of slowing down their brains to best adapted to low light conditions. Speculation on that ability has led to another question: with slowed brains, how can they make the necessary adjustments to hover in mid-air?
Studies of moths hovering in near darkness demonstrate that only if conditions were extreme – for example, flowers moving in a wind stronger than any nature could produce – did the moths falter. The research shows how these insects are able to finely tune their brains in order to find food sources.