The last thing you probably do when a fly buzzes towards you is marvel at its graceful wing and body kinematics. But that’s exactly what researchers at Cornell University’s Itai Cohen Group do on a daily basis. One of the group’s ongoing areas of study is biolocomotion—in particular, how living organisms, from individual insects to groups of people, navigate space. Although the process is lost on most of us, flyswatter or rolled-up newspaper in hand, the flight of flapping insects is actually incredibly complex: due to aerodynamic instabilities, stable flapping flight requires fast, corrective actions. “If the fly isn’t constantly adjusting its pattern of flight, it will fall out of the sky quickly,” says Samuel Whitehead, a graduate student at the lab. “But flies beat their wings at just over 200 Hz, or 200 times per second. In order to observe any subtle changes to the fly’s orientation, we need fast and accurate quantitative measurements.”

Insect Flight