As elegance in engineering goes, it doesn’t get much better: a functioning ornithopter modeled after a swallowtail butterfly. Japanese researchers fashioned their faux swallowtail to mimic the precise flying motion of the real thing, hoping its unique flying motion can inform future aerodynamic designs.
Unlike most other butterflies, swallowtails don’t actively control the aerodynamic force of their wings, instead achieving forward flight through simple flapping motions. Many other butterflies actually control their flights by making small adjustments to their wing motions as the fly, but the swallowtails’ wings are simply too big. Their flapping frequency is low, and their ability to control those massive wings is quite limited.
To prove this, the researchers built their ornithopter to the exact specifications of the swallowtail, right down to the thin membranes and veins that cover the wings of real butterflies. They then used special software to analyze the model swallowtail in flight, demonstrating that unsophisticated flapping motions with little feedback control can still produce precise, controlled flight.