The Mechanosensation of wings

Mechanosensation is a crucial sensory modality for motor-control. As we walk, we feel our weight to adjust our gaits, and catch ourselves when we trip. Similarly, for flying animals, sensing the air is like feeling the ground for us. Fluid sensing is a form of mechanosensation that is largely understudied, partly because fluid is difficult to characterize and mechanosensors are often inaccessible for in vivo measurements. Flying insects offer a great system for understanding the neural representation of aeroelasticity, the interaction between airfoil compliance and aerodynamic loading. With our recent success of in-flight neural recording via an ultralight wireless backpack on the dragonfly, we can start to eavesdrop on mechanosensory signals during insect flight. This research has direct implications for the emerging fly-by-feel control (control using mechanosensory data) for aerial systems and sets the stage for studying aerial interactions in animals and machines.

Dragonflies have surprisingly large number of wing sensors (A, B), transmitting high volume of neural information back to the central nervous system via two wing nerves passing through the wing base (C).

We discovered several types of wing sensors both for sensing airflow as well as strain on the wing veins. Most sensors are then tactically placed at various locations for sensing local airflow and mechanical deformation. How does the distribution of these sensor capture behaviourally relevant aeroelastic effects? What type of mechanical signatures are each class of sensor encode? What’s the data format for from the wing sensory nerves? Once we crack these questions, we will be in a good position to inform the design/control of compliant airfoils, and inspire the first flight-by-feel system.