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Flight of the robo-butterfly

An artificial butterfly takes wing in a video from the Institute of Physics.

Why a robo-butterfly? Some robotics experts build buglike or birdlike machines, also known as entomopters and ornithopters, to serve as tiny airborne spies. Japanese researchers had a different purpose in mind: Harvard's Hiroto Tanaka and the University of Tokyo's Isao Shimoyama wanted to figure out how actual swallowtail butterflies navigate through the air.

You see, because the swallowtails' forewings partly overlap their hind wings, they don't have as much aerodynamic control as other flying bugs. Tanaka and Shimoyama fiddled with a mechanical swallowtail to see whether they could reproducing the characteristic undulating flight of the butterfly.

"The results demonstrated that stable forward flight could be realized without active feathering or feedback control of the wing motion," the researchers report this week in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics. In the video above, you can watch their contraption float like a butterfly. But unlike military-issue entomopters, this one won't sting like a bee.

More about biomimetic flying (and hopping) machines: