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The role of drag in insect hovering

Cornell Affiliated Author(s)


Z.J. Wang


Studies of insect flight have focused on aerodynamic lift, both in quasi-steady and unsteady regimes. This is partly influenced by the choice of hovering motions along a horizontal stroke plane, where aerodynamic drag makes no contribution to the vertical force. In contrast, some of the best hoverers - dragonflies and hoverflies - employ inclined stroke planes, where the drag in the down- and upstrokes does not cancel each other. Here, computation of an idealized dragonfly wing motion shows that a dragonfly uses drag to support about three quarters of its weight. This can explain an anomalous factor of four in previous estimates of dragonfly lift coefficients, where drag was assumed to be small. To investigate force generation and energy cost of hovering flight using different combination of lift and drag, I study a family of wing motion parameterized by the inclined angle of the stroke plane. The lift-to-drag ratio is no longer a measure of efficiency, except in the case of horizontal stroke plane. In addition, because the flow is highly stalled, lift and drag are of comparable magnitude, and the aerodynamic efficiency is roughly the same up to an inclined angle about 60°, which curiously agrees with the angle observed in dragonfly flight. Finally, the lessons from this special family of wing motion suggests a strategy for improving efficiency of normal hovering, and a unifying view of different wing motions employed by insects.

Date Published


Journal of Experimental Biology





Number of Pages





Research Area

Group (Lab)

Z. Jane Wang Group

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