Spend a summer afternoon floating in a kayak and chances are you’ll see some impressive aerial acrobatics from dragonflies. One of the dragonfly’s superpowers is its ability to fly backwards, which helps it evade predators and take-off from almost any orientation. To do this, the dragonfly rotates its body so that it is nearly vertical, thereby changing the direction it generates lift. In engineering terms, this is “force-vectoring,” similar to the techniques used by helicopters and vertical-take-off jets.
Scientists found that backwards-flying dragonflies could generate forces two to three times their body weight, in part due to the strong leading-edge vortices (bottom image) formed on the forewings. They also found that the hind wings are timed so that their lift is enhanced by catching the trailing vortex of the first pair of wings. Engineers hope to use what they’re learning from insect flight to build more capable flying robots. (Image and research credit: A. Bode-Oke et al., source; via Science)