Wooden ornithopter mimics butterfly flight

Why make an artificial butterfly out of wood and plastic? Researchers think it can shed light on the mechanics of butterfly flight.

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak

Japanese researchers are probing the mechanics of insect flight by creating artificial butterflies. The above video shows a wooden contraption gracefully flapping its wings in high-speed footage.

Hiroto Tanaka of Harvard University and Isao Shimoyama of the University of Tokyo made the ornithopter out of balsa wood, polyurethane, and polymer film. It has the same mass and form as a swallowtail butterfly, including the planar shape of its wings.

The wings are powered by a crank mechanism. A rubber band is wound up to make the wings flap vertically at a frequency of 10Hz. It seems to fly for only a few seconds.

According to the study published in Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, the ornithopter flew like a swallowtail butterfly, even following an undulating course through the air. The researchers also found that plastic wings with veins generated a higher lift coefficient when flapping.

Shimoyama's lab has also created motor-driven insect ornithopters, pheromone-guided robots, and pneumatic hands.