up and away

Behold, the rhino beetle's evolutionary beauty

Originally Published: 

H. Vu Phan

It’s a bird, it’s a plane … It's a robot designed to buzz like a beetle.


Since the time of Da Vinci, humans have been fascinated by the natural biomechanics of animal flight.

What started as a conversation about how to fly has transformed into an obsession with how to fly better.


Why bugs?

We've long looked at birds for insight about flight, but as robots have gotten smaller, the biomechanics of birds have become less relevant.


Instead, scientists are now turning their curiosity toward insects.


In a new study, published Thursday in the journal Science, scientists honed in on the majestic rhinoceros beetle.


In particular, scientists were interested in the origami-like folding structure of the hindwings.


After studying these beetles in flight, the researchers realized that the hindwing mechanism could be used to help the beetles avoid collisions, too.

Here is the hindwing unfolding a real beetle...
And here is the hindwing unfolding in a robotic beetle...

The researchers observed that after a beetle hit its wingtip on an obstacle it would fold in on itself, before springing back.

This quick adjustment helped the beetle maintain stable flight.

H. Vu Phan

To see how well this trick might work for an insect-sized bot, the team designed mini robotic wings that could fold upon impact.

An "aggressive flight" in a naturalistic environment.

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Just as they’d observed in the real beetles, the robotic beetles were able to better recover their balance and continue flying when partially folding their wings after a collision.

Using their folding wings, the bots could better recover from banging into obstacles.

H. Vu Phan

But this solution still isn’t perfect. The mechanism driving wing folding is cumbersome to flight and uses a lot of energy.

The scientists say that during a potentially hazardous mission, like scouting a crumbling building, wing-folding could increase the lifespan of robo-beetles.

鴨片攝影 Akira Hsu / 500px/500Px Plus/Getty Images

It makes you really appreciate the rhino-beetle even more.

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