Scientists have uncovered the physics-defying secret of insect wings

Airplane aerodynamics don't apply to insects.
(Image credit: PATRICK PLEUL/AFP/Getty Images)

Not even the best pilot in the world can fly an airplane like the erratic path of an insect, and now scientists know why — bugs are simply exempt from the same laws of aerodynamics that apply to airplanes.

"We've known for quite a while that the aerodynamic theory for airplanes doesn't work so well in predicting the force of lift for flapping wings. We found that the drag or wind resistance also behaves very differently, and we put together a new law that could help explain how insects move through the air," assistant professor at New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Leif Ristroph, told Futurity.

Researchers had to go back to the drawing board to figure out the significance of wing thrust on overcoming aerodynamic drag. While an airplane, with its static wings, must increase its thrust fourfold to double its flight speed against wind resistance, a bug only needs to double its thrust to go twice as fast due to having a drag "that is in direct proportion to its flight speed," Ristroph said.

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To understand this, though, the NYU researchers actually built robotic wings to measure the way the air flowed and where the forces were acting. And now that they know more about how the drag on the wing acted more like a thrust in some instances, they think they may be able to design "tiny flying robots that mimic the wing motions of insects," Futurity reports.

Hey, at least robotic bugs don't sting. If you want to learn more — and are undaunted by the title "Linear drag law for high-Reynolds-number flow past an oscillating body" — check out the full study with diagrams in Physical Review Fluids, here.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.