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"On The Fly" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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Using high-speed cameras and computer models, Cornell researchers have shown exactly how fruit flies maneuver through the air, and how they keep stable even when a whoosh of wind knocks them off course.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

(SOUND EFFECT: tiny fly buzzing) Not Just Wingin' It...

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

(SOUND EFFECT: combination of a stunt plane and fly buzzing) If you could hitch a ride on the back of a fruit fly -- WHOAAAA! You'd marvel at the stability of one of the world's most agile flying machines. It can react to disturbances in its flight pattern by making miniscule corrections -- adjusting its wing angle sometimes by as many as 250 times per second! Wind comes up -- no problem. Swatter? Ha! I scoff at you!

We're just discovering the secrets of flight of these acrobatic little buggers thanks to the work of Cornell researchers. The team studied the flies with the help of both computer modeling and the use of 3 high-speed cameras, so that every little motion during flight could be captured and documented. To interrupt their flight patterns, small pins were attached to the flies' backs. Then, a mild magnetic field could be used to knock them off-course. (SOUND EFFECT: magnetic field noise) Talk about a buzz kill.

The fruit flies took it all in stride, and came through with 'flying colors.' As soon as the magnetic field was applied, the flies made an instant correction. It seems their secret is a stabilizer reflex that tells the wings how hard to paddle to recover from a mid flight stumble.

(SOUND EFFECT: bird wing flapping) We may someday fly in a flapping-wing aircraft modeled on the principles of flight we're learning from this tiny creature. Some 'fruitful' findings from a flighty little fly (SOUND EFFECT: tiny fly buzzing) and we never once had to call in a 'swat' team.

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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