Insect Aerodynamics

An animated (if your browser supports it) excerpt from two-dimensional computer simulation of a hovering dragonfly’s wing reveals the vortices of swirling air that keep the insect aloft. The figure-8 motion of the wing (shown in white, with the leading edge toward the Y axis) has produced clockwise (blue) as well as counterclockwise (red) vortices. Z. Jane Wang/Cornell University.

MINNEAPOLIS — A computer simulation of rapidly oscillating wings and the complex motions of fluids has proved that insect flight conforms to the physical principles of aerodynamics.

The computer-modeling accomplishment – which is expected to aid the future design of tiny insect-like flying machines and should dispel the longstanding myth that “bumblebees cannot fly, according to conventional aerodynamics” – was announced by Cornell University physicist Z. Jane Wang today (March 20) at the Minneapolis meeting of the American Physical Society (APS).

“The old bumblebee myth simply reflected our poor understanding of unsteady viscous fluid dynamics,” explained Wang, an assistant professor of theoretical and applied mechanics in Cornell’s College of Engineering, in an interview before the APS meeting. “Unlike fixed-wing aircraft with their steady, almost inviscid (without viscosity) flow dynamics, insects fly in a sea of vortices, surrounded by tiny eddies and whirlwinds that are created when they move their wings.”

Roger Segelken
Cornell Theoretical and Applied Mechanics Dept