At breakneck speed, a fruit fly veers off course and rolls into a precise bank. As the fly dips and dives around a miniature arena inside a laboratory in Seattle, three high-speed cameras shooting at 7500 frames per second capture its every twist and turn. Michael Dickinson, biologist and fruit fly expert at the University of Washington, has spent yearsstudying insect flight, and converting static images into dynamic models. “I’m obsessed with flies and how they work,” he says.
Now, Dickinson and his team have revealed the physics behind how a fruit fly escapes from threats, be they predators or rolled-up newspapers. His work, published in today in Science, shows that flies escape danger with a specific sequence of rapid wing beats and sharp turns. And soon, engineers may use Dickinson’s basic research to build smarter, smaller flying robots.