Dr. Michael Dickinson - How Flies Fly

May 4, 2006 at 6:00 pm


Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Dickinson, California Institute of Technology

In a two-ton vat of mineral oil a set of robotic wings beat silently. Nearby, in a circular corral of computer controlled LED’s, a fly tethered by a tungsten wire beats its own organic wings hundreds of times a second. As the animal flaps, laser-based sensors measure the force and torque of its miniature movements while a “wing beat analyzer” tracks the shadows of its gossamer foils. Elsewhere in the lab of Dr Michael Dickinson, researchers use stereoscopic video to reconstruct the insects’ flight path and to simulate a “fly’s eye view” of the world. Where the French oceanographer Jean Painleve took us inside the world of the octopus and seahorse, so Dickinson takes us into the realm of the fruit fly. 360 million years before the Wright brothers pitched a glider into the wind, the descendents of shrimp-like crustaceans learned the art of hovering - a skill that humans have yet to finesse. Just as crustaceans swim by furiously beating their legs, so insects fly by furiously beating their wings, a hyperactive expenditure of energy that is at once efficient and amazingly effective. Insects’ aerobatic maneuverings are the envy of engineers and now the subject of intensive scientific research. In this talk Dr Michael Dickinson will discuss the aerodynamics, physiology, and perceptual systems involved in a flies’ flight. The event will include unique high-speed films and animations of how a fly experiences the world.

Dr Michael Dickinson’s laboratory at Caltech is devoted to understanding “the motion of a fly through the air.” Trained as a classical zoologist, Dickinson has also studied the physiology of hummingbird flight and is researching the control mechanisms underlying a wide class of insect gaits. He is the architect of the Grand Unified Fly project that aims “to encode in silicon as much of a fly as we can.”

Text written by Margaret Wertheim

Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Dickinson, California Institute of Technology