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Japanese researchers create artificial butterfly


May 20, 2010

A still from the just-released video of the ornithopter in action

A still from the just-released video of the ornithopter in action

Last year, we brought you the story of tech company AeroVironment’s life-size artificial hummingbird, that flies solely by flapping its wings. Now, a group of Japanese researchers has successfully built and flown a flapping-wing-powered swallowtail butterfly. Besides looking incredibly cool, the life-size “ornithopter” has also proven a principle that could have big implications in the field of aerodynamics.

Swallowtails’ wings are unusually large compared to their bodies, and their forewings overlap their rear wings. Because of these unique factors, their flapping frequency is considerably lower than that of other butterflies, and their range of wing motion is more restricted. This means that they have limited control of the aerodynamic force of their wings, and that their body motions are simply reactions to the flapping motion - in other types of butterflies, their body motions do exert control over their aerodynamics.

Not only did the researchers copy the size and shape of the swallowtail’s wings, but they even replicated the thin membranes and veins that cover them. They built the ornithopter in order to prove that forward flight can be achieved through flapping alone, without a feedback system controlling the motion.

Now that it’s been proven that such flight does not require complex algorithms or onboard processors, it’s possible that bird- and insect-like surveillance Micro Air Vehicles could be paying us a visit sooner rather than later.

The full report on the ornithopter is available in IOP Publishing’s Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Um...how is this different to a WowWee Skyhopper? I suppose one difference is that it does not have counter flapping wings like the Skyhopper, but i can\'t quite figure out why such a vehicle would require \'complex algorithms or onboard processors\' unless the aerodynamic design was inherently unstable like that of a F 117 stealth plane. It is cute though. But a version based on the flying motion of a fly would impress me more (you know tiny rotating wings with a big body). Also can it actually sustain flight or does it just to a \'controlled glide/dive\' as in the video?


It looks to me that it\'s falling slowly- not flying at all. Needs more work, but interesting..

Facebook User

A French company has been selling the Tim bird for many years. This is a rubber band powered ornithopter. The wings are made with a single plastic leading edge, and covered with Mylar. It flies very effectively, and the butterfly shown in the article is a miniature version. There is no aerofoil section to the wing, and it creates lift merely by flapping up and down


Does this mean that the Japanese can now create a typhoon in Brazil just by flapping the butterfly\'s wings?


The candle isn\'t butterfly flight, it\'s dragonfly flight. The Japanese butterfly is a toy.

John Weiss

This appears to simply be part of a longer video from YouTube that was originally shot in Feb 2008 over two years ago and placed on YouTube in Dec 2008.


Dave Andrews

I\'ve seen similar with rubber-band wind up mechanisms.

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