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Design Principles in the flight autostabilizer of fruit flies


Anyone attempting to swat a fly will become aware of its remarkable aerodynamic capabilities. Its speed of response and ability to change direction abruptly far exceed our own powers as pursuers. The flight of insects has received considerable attention from researchers and some recent work was stimulated by the recognition of a gap in knowledge. The scientists realized that the previously-studied flight control system involving vision cannot be the explanation for how flies maintain stability in the face of unpredictable short disturbances.

“Corrective behavior often takes advantage of vision. For fruit flies, however, reaction time to visual stimuli is at least 10 wingbeats, so these insects must employ faster sensory circuits to recover from short time-scale disturbances and instabilities.”

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Body motions are detected by the halteres: “small vibrating organs [. . .] that act as gyroscopic sensors. Anatomical, mechanical, and behavioral evidence indicates that the halteres serve as detectors of body angular velocity that quickly trigger muscle action.” With this model, the halteres have a nonlinear response consistent with vibratory gyroscopes, so sensor saturation explains “why fruit flies are unable to accurately recover from strong perturbations”. The control system design principles are as follows:

“These findings suggest that these insects drive their corrective response using an autostabilizing feedback loop in which the sensed angular velocity serves as the input to the flight controller. [. . .] [T]he velocity is sensed by the halteres, processed by a neural controller, and transmitted by the flight motor into specific wing motions that generate aerodynamic torque.”

Halteres are remarkable organs and unique to the Diptera. The research raises questions about other autostabilization techniques found in the natural world and how such systems can be incorporated into flying robots.

“Flight control principles uncovered in this model organism may also apply more broadly, and this work provides a template for future studies aimed at determining if other animals employ flight autostabilization. The control strategies across different animals are likely to share common features, because the physics of body rotation is similar across many animals during flapping-wing flight. Additionally, animals that lack halteres may use functionally equivalent mechanosensory structures such as antennae. Finally, the control architecture of the fruit fly offers a blueprint for stabilization of highly maneuverable flapping-wing flying machines.”

These design principles were incorporated by intelligent agents into aeroplanes very early in their history. It is now apparent that flying insects got there first! In evolutionary terms, we have here a good example of convergence. Since these control systems represent complex specified information (with the greater complexity found in the insect control system), intelligent agency should be invoked in both cases.
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