Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms. Today’s Sciency Word is:
It is aerodynamically impossible for insects to fly, or so French entomologist Antoine Magnan famously claimed in 1934. And it’s true. If aerodynamics means the scientific principles governing the flight of airplanes, then you will have a very hard time explaining how insects fly using aerodynamics alone.
Do you know what else is aerodynamically impossible, or at least aerodynamically very, very difficult? Flying on Mars. The atmosphere is too thin for fixed-wing aircraft. But perhaps where traditional aerodynamics fails, insect aerodynamics might succeed!
At least that was the thought behind the entomopter, a project proposed by Robert Michelson and colleagues at the Georgia Tech Research Institute back in the early 2000’s. The term entomopter comes from two Greek words—entoma, meaning insect, and pteron, meaning wing. So an entomopter is a flying machine that mimics the “aerodynamically impossibly” flight of insects.
As Michelson explains in this article:
Aerodynamic analyses of [insect] flight consistently revealed that their wings must produce 2-3 times more lift than conventional wings, and in some cases up to 6-7 times. The extra load-lifting capacity this would offer Entomopters is highly significant, and indicates that a novel design based on flapping insect flight would outperform a more traditional aerodynamic approach.
The prototype entomopter built by Michelson and his research team was modeled after the hawk moth (scientific name Manduca sexta). With a ten-centimeter wingspan, the hawk moth is an unusually large insect, which makes it easier to observe and study the movements of its wings. And I have to admit in this concept video from NASA, there is something distinctly moth-y about the way the entomopter flies.
I first learned about the entomopter while researching last week’s post on NASA’s NIAC program. The entomopter was one of those so-crazy-it-might-work proposals that won grant money through NIAC.
You may have heard about the Mars Helicopter Scout (a.k.a. Marscopter), which will be accompanying NASA’s next Mars rover. You may have also heard about Dragonfly, the robotic quadcopter that NASA plans to send to Titan sometime in the 2030’s. Neither of these spacecraft qualify as entomopters, and I’m really not sure how much thanks either Marscopter or Dragonfly owe to the entomopter project. But I strongly suspect there is some sort of connection there.
2 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Entomopters”
It’s interesting how Magnan’s statement, which I suspect was meant to be an ironic reference to a difficult modeling problem, got translated into: “Science says bee flight is impossible,” which is the version I heard growing up.
The entomopter reminds me of the ornithopter concept, an aircraft designed to operate like a bird, with flapping wings.
Given that these devices, including the copters, would have to operate independently in realtime, the autonomous capabilities are getting impressive.
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In context, Magnan definitely sounds like he’s making a joke. He wanted to understand insect flight, and he used the best mathematical models available to him at the time. But those models were meant for airplanes, and they just did not work for bees.
There are a lot of ornithopters in Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I feel like entomopters could serve the same function in a story world while simultaneously making the world feel fresh and different. I don’t know if there’s a place for this technology in my own story universe, but it’s something worth thinking about.
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