Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Is there a pilot in the insect?

When they fly, insects use their vision for piloting, just like human pilots.

The electric signals from their facetted eyes travel through specialized neurons to stimulate the wing muscles, which let the insects correct their flight and avoid crashes. Could these same neurons be used in a sort of "automatic pilot"? This is what Nicolas Franceschini, Franck Ruffier and Julien Serres have just shown.

These biorobotics specialists from the Movement and Perception Laboratory (CNRS/Université de la Méditerranée) in Marseille, France have revealed an automatic mechanism called the "optic flow regulator" that controls the lift force. The researchers obtained these results by modeling the overland flight navigation of insects using experiments carried out on OCTAVE, a captive flying robot microhelicopter that can reproduce much of the mysterious natural insect behavior. Their work is published online in Current Biology, February 8, 2007.

How does a tiny creature like a fly or a bee, with a brain the size of a pinhead, manage to make such a magnificent job of controlling its flight, and avoid crashing to the ground? Today it is known that the sensory motor prowess of these flying miniatures depends on the nervous system, made up of between one hundred thousand and one million neurons. When an insect, bird or pilot flies over land, the image of the ground below sweeps from front to back across the central part of the visual field, creating an "optic flow", which is defined as the angular speed at which the ground contrasts move past.

... more about:
»Franceschini »Neuron »Optic »Pilot »ROBOT »headwind

By definition, this angular speed is equal to the ratio of the horizontal speed and the altitude. What these authors call an "optic flow regulator" is a reflex that keeps the optic flow, and thus the speed/altitude ratio, at a constant value. If the insect changes speed, this reflex will make it change altitude so that ratio remains constant. Adjusting the speed/altitude ratio means that the insect has no need to measure either its speed or its altitude.

If there is a strong headwind, its forward speed will be reduced. Thus its optic flow regulator will constantly force it to reduce altitude so that the optic flow always remains at the reference value. The insect has to make a forced landing against the wind, but a safe landing, because it takes place at a vertical speed of zero. Reactions of this type to a headwind have been described countless times in insects and even in birds. They are also observed on the microhelicopter each time it faces a laboratory-produced headwind, reinforcing the hypothesis that flying creatures have an optic flow regulator.

The very simple control scheme proposed takes into account 70 years of often surprising observations of the behavior of winged insects. It accounts for the fact not only that insects descend facing a headwind and ascend with a tailwind, but also that honeybees land with a constant slope and drown when crossing mirror-smooth water1.

Behind this astonishing behavior, hidden in the insect's cockpit, are movement detector neurons that act as optic flow sensors. The team patiently decoded the functioning of these neurons using ultra-fine microelectrodes (with a diameter of a thousandth of a millimeter) and a specially designed microscope. They then produced an electronic microcircuit based on this principle. The most recent version weighs only 0.2 grams. This is the neuron that does most of the work on board the microhelicopter.

The optic flow regulator helps explain how an insect manages to fly, even in unfavorable wind conditions, without measuring its ground height, groundspeed or descent speed, in other words without using any of the usual aircraft onboard flight aids like radar, GPS, radio-altimeters and variometers. An insect brain wouldn't cope with these cumbersome, heavy, energy-consuming devices.

This important work shows that this new science called biorobotics, that the team from Marseille started in 1985, is important both for fundamental and applied research. The method consists in using robotics models to test biological principles that are perceived only vaguely at the outset.

These hidden forces underlying animal behavior can then be understood more exactly by permanently shuttling between biology and robotics. These principles have been tried and tested for millions of years, and today they need to be applied to aerospace, because the phases in which an airship or a space module navigates close to the ground are absolutely crucial.

The researchers and CNRS have filed an international patent for the "fly automatic pilot".

1. When ripples are totally absent from a pond surface, for example, the (natural and artificial) optic flow sensors are put out of action because there are no contrasts. This results in insects being drawn irresistibly downwards.

Photo 1 - A Bluebottle fly (Calliphora) photographed head on through a special microscope (Lieberkühn microscope) built in the lab from two bicycle headlamps. After Franceschini, N. "From insect vision to robot vision: Re-construction as a mode of discovery" In: "Sensors and Sensing in Biology and Engineering", Barth, F.G., Humphrey, J. A., Secomb T.W. (Eds.), Springer, Berlin, 2003, pp. 223-235) © N. Franceschini, CNRS. (This picture is available from the CNRS photo-library, +33(0)1 45 07 57 90,

Photo 2 – A fly fitted with a microelectrode "leash" that records the activity of certain visual neurons during locomotion. © CNRS Photothèque / Hubert RAGUET. (This picture is available from the CNRS photo-library, +33(0)1 45 07 57 90,


A bio-inspired flying robot sheds light on insect piloting abilities, Current biology 17, 4 (February 20). Franceschini, N., Ruffier, F., Serres, J. (2007).

Monica McCarthy | EurekAlert!
Further information:

Further reports about: Franceschini Neuron Optic Pilot ROBOT headwind

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Novel mechanisms of action discovered for the skin cancer medication Imiquimod
21.10.2016 | Technische Universität München

nachricht Second research flight into zero gravity
21.10.2016 | Universität Zürich

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>