September 30, 2009 / 12:45 AM / 10 years ago

Flight of the bumblebee recreated by scientists

OXFORD, England (Reuters Life!) - Scientists armed with modern software and high-tech cameras say they have created a computer model that shows how bumblebees manage to defy the laws of aerodynamics.

A team of scientists from England and Australia used computer software written for aircraft designers to prove that the airflow and thrust generated by the complex flapping movement of insect wings is enough to keep bumblebees and locusts in the air.

The debate over a bumblebee’s ability to fly dates back about 100 years when various scientists and engineers argued that a pollen-laden bumblebee should be incapable of flying as it did not have enough lift to get airborne.

Professor Adrian Thomas of the Animal Flight Group at Oxford University’s Department of Zoology said the so-called ‘bumblebee paradox’ now really is dead, backing various previous studies showing that a bumblebee’s flight is aided by air flow.

“Nowadays, a computer model that you can buy off-the-shelf can accurately predict how an insect flies,” Thomas told Reuters Television.

The researchers used high-speed digital video cameras to film locusts in action in a wind tunnel, capturing how the shape of a locust’s wing changes in flight.

They used that information to create a computer model which recreates the airflow and thrust generated by the complex flapping movement.

“We have now got a computer model of animal flight that we have checked against the real world,” said Thomas.

Thomas said this system could help in the design of miniature robot aircraft for use in situations such as search and rescue, military operations and inspecting hazardous environments.

However he was the first to admit that the efficiency of human engineering lags far behind natural evolution.

“Insects have been around for 300 million and that is a long time to be under selection pressure that is trying to perfect your design,” said Thomas.

Reporting by Stuart McDill, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith

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