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Realtime 3D X-ray imaging shows the internal flight motor of the blowfly

A new image gives us an idea of the inner-workings of the blowfly.

Realtime 3D X-ray imaging shows the internal flight motor of the blowfly

Mention flight and for most, birds or airplanes quickly come to mind. In fact, the vast majority of flying animals are insects, a class of invertebrates consisting of vast numbers and enormous diversity. Scientists are keenly interested in the details of how insects perform flight because of how understanding these mechanisms may inform the design and development of robotics. However, practical and technological limitations have stood in the way of answering some very important questions about insect flight.
Flying insects are small and agile. In particular, the dipteran flies exhibit extraordinary maneuverability. With only two wings beating at up to 150 times per second, the blowfly can fly backwards, turn on a dime, and even land upside down on ceilings. But how do they achieve such exquisite flight control?
This week, a team of researchers at Oxford University, Imperial College, and the Paul Scherrer Institute provided amazing new insight into insect flight and answered one of these intractable questions. Graham Taylor and colleagues used a particle accelerator to capture high-speed three-dimensional X-ray images over time–a technique called time-resolved microtomography–as a tethered blowfly made in-flight turns. Their report, published this week in PLoS Biology, details how they used the imaging approach to view tiny structures responsible for steering within the bodies of the living, flying insects.
Researchers interested in developing micromechanical devices are keenly interested in the blowfly’s flight machinery. These insects possess perhaps the most complex hinge joints connecting their wings to their bodies in all of nature. Interestingly, their large power-producing flight muscles do not attach directly to the wings. Instead, they produce oscillating deformations of the thorax, or middle of three body segments to which the wings are attached. The deformations of the thorax are amplified by the hinges to produce the mechanical force that drives the wings.
For each wing, there are a small set of muscles that facilitate steering. These muscles constitute only a small (< 3%) amount of the fly’s total muscle mass yet dramatically alter the amplitude and pattern of wing movement. The key question that has until now gone unanswered is how these tiny muscles can control the output of the much larger power-producing muscles.
Taylor and his team observed that the set of tiny steering muscles actually absorb mechanical energy diverted to them from the thorax. By absorbing this energy, the steering muscles effect considerable influence on the wing movements despite their relatively tiny size. The results indicate that deformations of the thorax, particularly the outer body covering and the steering muscles and their respective tendons, are critical for the blowfly’s flight control. Taylor likens it to reducing your car’s speed by downshifting to lower gears. This study describes the first successful application of microtomography to viewing the high-speed internal mechanisms of insect flight.

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