INSECTS-INSPIRED BIG INNOVATION
LOOKING TO NATURE TO REVOLUTIONIZE FLIGHT
-The beating wings of insects hold the secrets to controlled low-speed flight and Micro Aerial Vehicles.
Research Keywords: Bioinspired Engineering, Biological flight, Drone
Inspired by the fascinating flying ability of insects and humming birds, Chiba University’s Biomechanical Engineering Laboratory has been conducting pioneering research on beating-wing flight for more than 20 years. Headed by Professor Hao Liu, the lab is on the verge of revolutionizing the very concept of flight itself.
“Insects have this amazing ability to hover and execute highly controlled flight in both still air and turbulent wind gusts,” says Liu. “Scientists once knew very little about how insects generate aerodynamic force in tur- bulent environments, and even less about how they are able to maintain such agile control in flight.”
BIOLOGY INSPIRES MICRO AIR VEHICLES
Conventional flight is based on the uninterrupted flow of air over the curved upper and lower surfaces of a wing, which causes a ‘suction’ effect that lifts the wing upward.
“Fixed wings need smooth airflow to generate lift,” explains Liu. “Turbulence over the wing can lead to disaster. Our first major breakthrough in unravelling the mystery of insect flight was that most flying insects in fact generate most of their lift force by creating a vortex on the leading edge of the flapping wing. It’s a completely different principle of flight to conventional flight.”
It all started in 1996 with Liu’s development of the first computational fluid dynamics simulation for insect flight, which led to the discovery of the universal leading-edge vortex mechanism in insect and bird flight. To delve deeper, the laboratory installed an ultra-low-speed wind tunnel capable of airflow as slow as half a metre a second. They use it to observe and analyse the flight of live birds and insects such as moths, beetles and dragonflies, as well as micro air vehicles (MAVs), very small drones with potential uses in disaster relief and covert operations. “Using high-speed imaging and particle image velocimetry data, we were able to create a computer model of an insect and its flight mechanism, and from there we made an experimental robot insect that actually flew. That was another pioneering breakthrough,” says Liu.
“Our research brings together biology, engineering, computational physics, biorobotics and neuroscience, and we collaborate with the likes of Cambridge and the University of London on some really interesting international, cooperative projects. Chiba is definitely a world leader in this area with a strong interdisciplinary team and world- class facilities.”
The lab’s research now focuses on developing insect-inspired flight systems, which he expects to lead to big developments in the design of insect- and bird-size MAVs.
“For example, we think it’s wing flexibility that gives insects much of their resilience to wind gusts, but we are also seeing that insects use their body much more than we thought to control direction and movement, both actively and passively. This is completely different to the conventional wing- based control used by planes today and has the potential to revolutionize flight control strategies in general,” says Liu.
“Ultimately we want to develop an insect-inspired autonomous drone that is far more reliable and agile than anything based on today’s rotor-based technology. We hope that this will also lead to a new mechanism of flight with potentially much broader applications. In the meantime, we continue to collaborate on the development of advanced, flapping MAVs, as well as help improve the reliability of rotor-based drones by introducing flexible wing technology.”（CHIBA RESEARCH 2020）
|Name||Title, Affiliation||Research Themes|
|LIU Hao||Professor, Graduate School of Engineering||Biomimetics|
|Name||Title, Affiliation||Research Themes|
|NAMIKI Akio||Associate Professor, Graduate School of Engineering||Robotics|
|OKAWA Kazuya||Associate Professor, Graduate School of Engineering||Robotics|
|NAKATA Toshiyuki||Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Engineering||Biomimetics|
|KOHRI Michinari||Associate Professor, Graduate School of Engineering||Biomimetic chemistry|
|MATSUKA Toshihiko||Professor, Graduate School of Humanities and Studies on Public Affairs||Behavioral Science|
|USHITANI Tomokazu||Associate Professor, Graduate School of Humanities and Studies on Public Affairs||Comparative Cognition|
|WATANABE Arii||Associate Professor, Graduate School of Humanities and Studies on Public Affairs||Comparative Cognition|
|TAKAHASHI Yuma||Specially Appointed Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Science||Evolutionary Biology|
|ISHIKAWA Hiroyuki||Associate Professor, Graduate School of Science||Developmental Biology|
|KATO Akira||Associate Professor, Graduate School of Horticulture||Landscape Science, Field of Landscape Resource Science|
|SUZUKI Satoshi||Associate Professor, Graduate School of Engineering||Control Engineering|