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Bee Landing Strategy May Lead to Better Aircraft

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Researchers recently looked into the life of bees and found something of interest to all fliers: bees never crash, even when they land on an upside-down surface. Their efficient landings show that current landing techniques for aircraft and spacecraft are overly complicated. Aircraft designers could learn a lot from a bee.

Trained as an electrical engineer, Mandyam Srinivasan of the Queensland Brain Institute has “been fascinated for a long time [at] how a creature with a brain the size of a sesame seed can do all of the things that it does.”1 In addition to coordinating internal body processes, this tiny brain processes huge quantities of incoming chemical, physical, and visual data.

In their study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, Srinivasan and his colleagues focused on the bee’s three-phase landing strategy.2 They discovered that a bee first slows to a dead stop and hovers almost exactly 16mm from the surface of its landing platform. Second, it “is able to estimate the slope of the surface,” even though the bee is not moving. This was surprising, since researchers had previously thought that insects’ compound eyes can only see objects with relative motion.1 “We don’t know how they’re doing it…. But they’re doing it,” Srinivasan told Discovery News.3

Finally, the bee grasps its platform with the appendages nearest the surface―hind feet if it is horizontal or forefeet if it is inverted, like a ceiling. The bee’s landing procedures must be precise, because surfaces such as soft flower petals can be shaky platforms.

These findings “may help engineers design a new generation of automated aircraft that would be undetectable to radar or sonar systems and would make perfectly gentle landings, even in outer space.”3 Current systems emit radar waves that are detectable because they bounce off of the landing surface. But a visual system like that of bees would calculate critical landing information by just detecting incoming visible light.


 

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