Dragonflies use backflips to right themselves when thrown off balance

Shane McGlaun - Feb 11, 2021, 8:09am CST
Dragonflies use backflips to right themselves when thrown off balance

Researchers have been conducting an investigation into dragonflies in hopes that details on how the insects fly and remain stable in the air could be used to inspire new designs for drones and other small aerial aircraft. The team used high-speed cameras and CGI technology to learn the dragonfly’s built-in mechanisms for righting itself if it’s thrown off balance in the air.

Dragonflies are impressive creatures able to glide, fly backward, and travel at speeds up to 54 km/h when hunting prey or escaping from predators. The team also learned that when the dragonfly is thrown off balance and finds itself upside down in the air, it performs a backflip to right itself. Researchers say the dragonflies most frequently perform upside down backflips known as “pitching” to right themselves from an upside-down position in the air.

Interestingly the team also found that dragonflies can perform the same maneuver if they are unconscious, suggesting the response has a large component of passive stability, making it a flight mechanism similar to that which allows aircraft to glide if the engine turns off. During the research, the team found that the shape and joint stiffness of the dragonfly wings provides passive stability, and the discovery could be used to help drone designs in the future.

Researchers outfitted 20 common darter dragonflies with tiny magnets and motion tracking dots like those used to create CGI imagery during the study. They then magnetically attached each Dragonfly to a magnetic platform right side up or upside down with tilt variations. The insects were then released into freefall, and the motion tracking dots provided 3D models of how the dragonfly moves.

The motion was captured using high-speed cameras, and researchers found when dropped from the upside-down position, dragonflies somersaulted backward, regaining a right side up position. Unconscious dragonflies completed the same somersault, but more slowly. Dead dragonflies didn’t perform the maneuver at all unless their wings were posed into specific live or unconscious positions by researchers.


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