Discovering the flight autostabilizer of fruit flies by inducing aerial stumbles

Leif Ristroph, Attila J. Bergou, Gunnar Ristroph, Katherine Coumes, Gordon J. Berman, John Guckenheimer, Z. Jane Wang, Itai Cohen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Just as the Wright brothers implemented controls to achieve stable airplane flight, flying insects have evolved behavioral strategies that ensure recovery from flight disturbances. Pioneering studies performed on tethered and dissected insects demonstrate that the sensory, neurological, and musculoskeletal systems play important roles in flight control. Such studies, however, cannot produce an integrative model of insect flight stability because they do not incorporate the interaction of these systems with free-flight aerodynamics. We directly investigate control and stability through the application of torque impulses to freely flying fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) and measurement of their behavioral response. High-speed video and a new motion tracking method capture the aerial "stumble," and we discover that flies respond to gentle disturbances by accurately returning to their original orientation. These insects take advantage of a stabilizing aerodynamic influence and active torque generation to recover their heading to within 2° in <60 ms. To explain this recovery behavior, we form a feedback control model that includes the fly's ability to sense body rotations, process this information, and actuate the wing motions that generate corrective aerodynamic torque. Thus, like early man-made aircraft and modern fighter jets, the fruit fly employs an automatic stabilization scheme that reacts to short time-scale disturbances.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4820-4824
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number11
StatePublished - Mar 16 2010


  • Flight control
  • Fruit fly
  • Insect flight
  • Perturbation
  • Stability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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