U.K. researchers aid MAV development by solving "bumble-bee paradox"

Published 1 February 2007

Due to their small size, micro air vehicles struggle to attain sufficient lift; Bath University scientists discover a seventy-year old secret as to how bees manage to get off the ground; flexible insect-like wings might help MAVs realize full potential

It was just three days ago that we reported on efforts by American and Israeli researchers to develop micro air vehicles (MAVs) — inches-long machines known in some circles as “Talibanotors” for their ability to serve as kamikaze fighters. These efforts were instigated only recently, so no doubt there is much room for improvement in their design. Hopefully, the military planners involved in the MAV programs will take heed of new research from the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. Scientists there have discovered why bees and other insects are such excellent fliers, and the hope is that such knowledge will result in faster and light MAVs.

Scientists have long been fascinated with bumble-bee aeronautics, with the first experiments conducted at Gottingen University in the 1930s. In what is known as the “bumble-bee paradox,” etymologists observed that the shape and size of the bee’s wings could not possible generate sufficient lift to keep it in the air. Yet despite the scientists’ reports, bees continued to fly. What the Bath researchers discovered was that the bee’s (and other insects’s) wings are of a special flexible shape: the extra lift comes when the wings slice through the air at a high angle of attack, creating a large swirling vortex at their leading edge. The result is multiple vortices