Untethered Hovering Flapping Flight of a 3D-Printed Mechanical Insect

Posted on April 7, 2011


This project focuses on developing a flapping-wing hovering insect using 3D printed wings and mechanical parts. The use of 3D printing technology has greatly expanded the possibilities for wing design, allowing wing shapes to replicate those of real insects or virtually any other shape. It has also reduced the time of a wing design cycle to a matter of minutes. An ornithopter with a mass of 3.89g has been constructed using the 3D printing technique and has demonstrated an 85-second passively stable untethered hovering flight. This flight exhibits the functional utility of printed materials for flapping wing experimentation and ornithopter construction and for understanding the mechanical principles underlying insect flight and control.

Computational Synthesis LaboratoryMechanical & Aerospace Engineering
Cornell University

This article exhibits one of the most fascinating aspects of 3D printing technology. It appears to impact every single discipline in unique ways, leading to endless new possibilities. Using 3D printing, Cornell has successfully replicated one of the most delicate biological structures: an insect wing.

As the article points out, the key aerodynamic component to insect flight is the wings. The lightweight structure has proven difficult to replicate, and further understanding of the wing flapping would be beneficial. The scientists used CAD drawings to precisely define the curvature of the wing, the size of the central beam, and the hing of the wing. The nature of the CAD program allowed for instructions to be sent to the printer quickly, tested and readjusted in a short amount of time. Additionally, the printers are able to print in extremely thin layers which is necessary to reproduce a wing exactly.

3D printing technology has been used to greatly reduce the time it takes to replicate these wings, enabling further research to take place. Though it might sound trivial to replicate wings, the implications of this research is that scientists may soon be able to apply the physics of insect wing flight to actual aircrafts using a scaled version of the architecture. According to the authors, “This project has demonstrated the viability of 3D printed aerodynamic components for experimentation and for use in a real ornithopter on the size scale of the smallest current designs.”

Submitted by Jennifer Walker

Posted in: Reviews