Unsteady aerodynamics of insect flight

Symp Soc Exp Biol. 1995;49:109-29.


Over the past decade, the importance of unsteady aerodynamic mechanisms for flapping insect flight has become widely recognised. Even at the fastest flight speeds, the old quasi-steady aerodynamic interpretation seems inadequate to explain the extra lift produced by the wings. Recent experiments on rigid model wings have confirmed the effectiveness of several postulated high-lift mechanisms. Delayed stall can produce extra lift for several chords of travel during the translational phases of the wingbeat. Lift can also be enhanced by circulation created during pronation and supination by rotational mechanisms: the fling/peel, the near fling/peel and isolated rotation. These studies have revealed large leading-edge vortices which contribute to the circulation around the wing, augmenting the lift. The mechanisms show distinctive patterns of vortex shedding from leading and trailing edges. The results of flow visualization experiments on tethered insects are reviewed in an attempt to identify the high-lift mechanisms actually employed. The fling/peel mechanism is clearly used by some insects. The near fling/peel is the wing motion most commonly observed, but evidence for the production of high lift remains indirect. For many insects, lift on the upstroke probably results from delayed stall instead of the flex mechanism of isolated rotation. The large leading-edge vortices from experiments on rigid model wings are greatly reduced or missing around the real insect wings, often making the identification of aerodynamic mechanisms inconclusive. A substantial spanwise flow component has been detected over the aerodynamic upper wing surface, which should transport leading-edge vorticity towards the wingtip before it has much time to roll up. This spanwise transport, arising from centrifugal acceleration, is probably a general phenomenon for flapping insect flight. It should reduce and stabilise any leading-edge vortices that are present, which is essential for preventing stall and maintaining the circulation of high-lift mechanisms during translation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biophysical Phenomena
  • Biophysics
  • Flight, Animal / physiology*
  • Insecta / physiology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Movement / physiology
  • Wings, Animal / physiology*