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Could drone designers learn from a dead dragonfly? Probably

New research shows that dragonflies – even dead ones – perform a somersault maneuver if they are upside down in the air. And that could have implications for the design of some drones.

You know how cats always land on their feet? No matter what the distance, a quick contortion and it has positioned itself in the air for a positive outcome. Now, researchers at Imperial College London have been examining the behavior of dragonflies. Specifically, what dragonflies do when they are dropped in an inverted position.

But, uh, how do you get a dragonfly upside-down?

The setup

Researchers attached tiny magnets to the bodies of 20 dragonflies. They also affixed motion tracking dots – like the ones put on actors to track their movements in space for CGI imagery.

And then they’d affix the dragonflies either upside-down or right-side up to an electromagnetic plate. When the magnetism was deactivated, the dragonflies would drop. Videocameras, presumably at a high frame rate, then captured the dragonflies as they did their thing.

The result was that their entire body would pitch until they were right side up. It’s kinda like what you see in this gif:

Unconscious? No probem

Surprisingly, researchers found a similar movement occurred when dragonflies were unconscious – or even dead. Not surprisingly, that led the researchers to theorize this movement might be a passive aerodynamic response.

They extrapolated this design feature might be applicable to drones. Now, we don’t really see how this might work with a quad, but certainly designers of fixed-wing UAVs might imagine a design where an inverted aircraft would quickly right itself and then glide to earth:

Engineers could take inspiration from flying animals to improve aerial systems. Drones tend to rely heavily on fast feedback to keep them upright and on course, but our findings could help engineers incorporate passive stability mechanisms into their wing structure.

Dr Huai-Ti Lin, Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering


Now if only someone can design a drone that’s as efficient at consuming mosquitos.

You can find Imperial College’s summary of the study here.