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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/H004025/1
Title: Insect wing design: evolution and biomechanics
Principal Investigator: Bomphrey, Professor RJ
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Tumbling Dice Ltd University New South Wales at ADFA US AirForce Research Lab
Department: Zoology
Organisation: University of Oxford
Scheme: Career Acceleration Fellowship
Starts: 01 October 2009 Ends: 30 June 2013 Value (£): 1,183,660
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Aerospace, Defence and Marine Transport Systems and Vehicles
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
01 Jul 2009 Fellowships 2009 Final Allocation Panel Announced
10 Jun 2009 Fellowships 2009 Interview - Panel D Deferred
Summary on Grant Application Form
Insects are the most diverse order of animals on earth and flight may be the key to this success. However, despite hundreds of millions of years of evolution, insect wings have not converged on a single optimal shape. Instead, there is an extraordinary range of wing morphologies visible in the world today (and even more fossilized), yet fundamentally, they all perform the same task - to enable flight. This led me to ask 'why is there no single wing shape that is best-suited to flapping flight?'The answer may well lie in assorted locally optimal solutions, specifically adapted to the tasks each insect undertakes during its life. The mission-profile of flight is unique for each insect species and so the selection pressures on wing morphology and kinematics is also species specific. A dragonfly that catches its prey on the wing and engages in aerial combat against rivals must be fast and manoeuvrable. Contrast this with the death's-head hawkmoth, migrating across Europe raiding bees' nests. They must be highly efficient since energy is at a premium during migration, but also robust enough to withstand attacks from bees when in their honey-stores. Understanding the morphologies of over a million described flying insect species is unfeasible, yet trends run through them which are exciting for aerodynamic engineering because they show solutions to specific requirements that have been tried, tested, and proven to succeed.My research seeks to understand how and why insect wing shapes have such variation despite intense selective pressure for aerodynamic performance, and why morphologies change when transitioning between ecological niches. The best way to examine this is to look at examples of convergent evolution, species which have similar ecology and morphology, yet originate from disparate taxonomic branches. Selecting species which are quite unrelated from one another allows discrimination of the aspects of wing shape which are part of design optimisation as opposed to those which are simply due to their historical starting point. My experiment therefore utilizes a comparative approach to evaluate representative species from across the class.In Track 1 of my research programme, a Postdoc will measure the aerodynamic output of flying insects directly, because it is essential to know how fast and in which direction the air is moving around the wings and in the wake. Flow velocities will be calculated around insects tethered in a wind tunnel by seeding the air with a light fog, and illuminating the particles with pulsing laser light. This technique is called Digital Particle Image Velocimetry and is the technique of choice for engineers studying complex flows. Recently, I successfully applied the technique to flying insects despite their small size and high wingbeat frequencies.Insects have no musculature in their wings. All the deforming complexities of the flapping cycle are controlled either actively by muscles at the wing hinge, or passively by inertial and aerodynamic forces on the wing architecture. The aerodynamic output is a result of wing motion so it is vital to know how the wing shape changes during flapping. In Track 2 of my research, a PhD student will record the kinematics of individuals from the same representative insects. The student will test predictions about the role of wing shape in ecology, by artificially selecting strains of fruit fly for alternate morphologies (e.g. more slender wings) and characterising the new morphs' flight performance. Simultaneously, the student will validate their results, by selecting strains based upon flight performance, and measuring the resulting modification in wing morphology.The output from these two tracks will be: 1) an explanation for the diversity of insect wing shapes from the perspective of biomechanical adaptation; 2) detailed kinematic data for Computational Fluid Dynamics studies; 3) clear design guidelines for engineers constructing insect-sized vehicles.
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