A journey to Mars and butterflies

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“How could a journey to Mars relate to butterflies?” The answer to this question comes from the scientists who discovered the aerodynamic talent of the butterflies.

A recent study revealed the outstanding aerodynamic talent of the butterflies that are known with their splendid motives. Dr. Adrian L.R. Thomas at Oxford University, who has been studying about the aerodynamics of the insect flight for 12 years, developed a particular wind tunnel in order to watch how the wings interact with air during the flight. The tunnel, that took 3 years to complete, is used to observe the flaps of a butterfly flying towards an artificial flower. While flapping towards the artificial flower, a colorful smoke is released towards its wings. By evaluating the shapes formed from the mixture of colorful smoke and the movement of flapping; it is determined how the wings interact with air. Meanwhile, a high speed digital camera records the movement of flapping.

Using this tunnel, Dr. Thomas and his assistant Dr. Robert Srygley observed the butterflies known as the Red Admiral, belonging to Vanessa Atalanta species. When they watched the recordings of the butterfly, they were astonished by the aerodynamic talent of the insect. Scientists, who compared the smoke shapes and the movement of flapping, indicate that the butterfly adjusts itself easily to changeable air currents with no extra energy lost. Accordingly, butterflies are so talented at dealing with air currents that they are able to flap their wings in 6 different ways as well as rotating them. Due to the particular movement they performed via their wings, mini whirlwinds are formed in the air – that will enable them to have extra lifting force. Thomas and Syrgley whose research results were published in Nature magazine say the following: “Butterfly flapping is not a random and undetermined wandering. These movements came from a talented usage of a wide range of aerodynamic mechanisms.” (www.news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/Nature/2566092.stm)

The movement of a butterfly in air is likened to the movements performed by acrobatics pilots. Dr. Thomas indicates that butterflies show no signs of exhaustion while doing these movements. Similar to that of a horse that can easily shift from walking into running or from running to a full gallop; butterflies can perform a flight style as they wish.

Beside the particular structure of the wings, the neural system controlling the movement of wings has also an important role for butterfly flight. The system that determines the speed and direction of the wings is compared to the electronic system on planes. Yet, scientists are incapable of understanding how the butterfly is able to perform these complex movements only with 3000 neurons. The control system of the butterfly is much more superior than that of modern planes. Here is a comment by Thomas published on Nature about the research: 

“Man made flying vehicles are controlled by software instruction. However, designing a software is the result of a labor that takes years and in order to apply it, high-powered computer chips are required. Nevertheless, for instance in flies, flight control comes out of a complexity made of about 3,000 neurons in the fly’s brain. For a fly, this means an operational capability less than that of a toaster; but in any way flies are swifter than planes equipped with super-speed digital electronics.”

(Aerodynamics: Red admiral agility, Nature 420, 615 – 618 (2002); 12 December 2002)

Inspired By an Insect

It is known that insect flight is much more superior than that of planes. It is so much superior that miniature planes capable of flying like a fly is every engineer’s dream. For instance, in the “journey to Mars” project – the dream of aeronautics and space industry- robots capable of landing in the planet and maneuvering effectively are required. Butterflies performing air acrobatic shows are inspiring scientist in developing these robots. Scientists from institutions such as NASA and Georgia Tech have been designing robots that can land on and move on Mars. These robots are inspired by insects are called “entomopter”. (www.spacedaily.com/news/mars-plane-01a.html)

Despite today’s technology, it is impossible to produce a plane having a wingspan less than 15 cm. A wing smaller than that is not big enough to establish a lifting force. Nevertheless, flies – despite that they are smaller- are able to perform perfect flight with their tiny wings. When the lifting force provided by the wings is compared in terms of unit area; it is seen that insect flight is 10 time more superior than that of airplanes. (HarunYahya, Biyomimetics)

15 cm planes are used for spying, by flying 100 meter distances as they are equipped with mini cameras. A company called AeroVironment in California in the United States has been producing these kind of planes for years. Matt Keennon, the project leader, wants to develop a robot-fly that can hang in the air, make sudden maneuvers, that can land on vertical surfaces, and that can be controlled by a remote controller. However, today’s technology is completely inadequate in mimicking flies. It is Allah’s will that the insects flight is so complex that it cannot be mimicked, and that movements performed by a tiny creature cannot be copied by man. Allah announces the miracle of the fly in the Holy Quran:

Mankind! an example has been made, so listen to it carefully. Those whom you call upon besides Allah are not even able to create a single fly, even if they were to join together to do it. And if a fly steals something from them, they cannot get it back. How feeble are both the seeker and the sought! (Surat al-Hajj, 73)

2010-10-20 11:00:30

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