Flow structure and force generation on flapping wings at low Reynolds numbers relevant to the flight of tiny insects

Arvind Santhanakrishnan, Shannon K. Jones, William B. Dickson, Martin Peek, Vishwa T. Kasoju, Michael H. Dickinson, Laura A. Miller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


In contrast to larger species, little is known about the flight of the smallest flying insects, such as thrips and fairyflies. These tiny animals range from 300 to 1000 microns in length and fly at Reynolds numbers ranging from about 4 to 60. Previous work with numerical and physical models have shown that the aerodynamics of these diminutive insects is significantly different from that of larger animals, but most of these studies have relied on two-dimensional approximations. There can, however, be significant differences between two- and three-dimensional flows, as has been found for larger insects. To better understand the flight of the smallest insects, we have performed a systematic study of the forces and flow structures around a three-dimensional revolving elliptical wing. We used both a dynamically scaled physical model and a three-dimensional computational model at Reynolds numbers ranging from 1 to 130 and angles of attacks ranging from 0 to 90 . The results of the physical and computational models were in good agreement and showed that dimensionless drag, aerodynamic efficiency, and spanwise flow all decrease with decreasing Reynolds number. In addition, both the leading and trailing edge vortices remain attached to the wing over the scales relevant to the smallest flying insects. Overall, these observations suggest that there are drastic differences in the aerodynamics of flight at the scale of the smallest flying animals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number45
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Aerodynamics
  • Flow visualization
  • Immersed boundary method
  • Insect flight
  • Low Reynolds number

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Fluid Flow and Transfer Processes


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