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MSU professor studies insect vibrations as model for flying machines

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Mark Jankauski, right, works in his lab with collaborator Erick Johnson on instruments used to study the complex shapes and motions associated with insect flight. PHOTO BY ADRIAN SANCHEZ-GONZALEZ

By Marshall Swearingen MSU NEWS SERVICE

BOZEMAN — In the engineer’s world, vibration is usually a bad thing. It means that something is loose, out of balance or unexpectedly catching the wind, that energy is being wasted or a part is being damaged. Engineers usually try to make vibration go away.

So it’s notable that Montana State University engineering researcher Mark Jankauski studies beneficial vibrations that could help create a new generation of flying machines. To do that, he turns to an unusual inspiration: insects.

“Insects have really leveraged vibration to enhance their flying efficiency,” said Jankauski, assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. “It allows them to do some amazing things.”

A fruit fly, for example, flaps its wings 10 times or more with a single nerve pulse to specialized muscles in its midsection, according to Jankauski. The muscle contraction creates a vibration that does the actual flapping, conserving energy and giving the fly the maneuverability that comes with rapid wing motion.

Backed by a new, $619,000 CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation, Jankauski will develop models that explain the inner workings of vibrational insect flight and how they could be applied to designing drones or other small aircraft.

“The question really is, how do we look at these natural systems, learn the concepts behind them and apply them to engineering,” Jankauski said.

In his lab, Jankauski has specialized devices that can apply precise forces to wing replicas and insects and measure how they bend and flex. In this project, he will observe how the intricate flight systems of insects such as honeybees and hawk moths respond to vibration. Using that data, his team can develop sophisticated computer algorithms that approximate the vibrating flight behavior. The models can then be used to predict the workings of vibrating structures that don’t exist in nature.

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