Lift vs. drag based mechanisms for vertical force production in the smallest flying insects

S. K. Jones, R. Laurenza, T. L. Hedrick, B. E. Griffith, L. A. Miller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


We used computational fluid dynamics to determine whether lift- or drag-based mechanisms generate the most vertical force in the flight of the smallest insects. These insects fly at Re on the order of 4-60 where viscous effects are significant. Detailed quantitative data on the wing kinematics of the smallest insects is not available, and as a result both drag- and lift-based strategies have been suggested as the mechanisms by which these insects stay aloft. We used the immersed boundary method to solve the fully-coupled fluid-structure interaction problem of a flexible wing immersed in a two-dimensional viscous fluid to compare three idealized hovering kinematics: a drag-based stroke in the vertical plane, a lift-based stroke in the horizontal plane, and a hybrid stroke on a tilted plane. Our results suggest that at higher Re, a lift-based strategy produces more vertical force than a drag-based strategy. At the Re pertinent to small insect hovering, however, there is little difference in performance between the two strategies. A drag-based mechanism of flight could produce more vertical force than a lift-based mechanism for insects at Re<5; however, we are unaware of active fliers at this scale.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)105-120
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
StatePublished - Nov 7 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Biomechanics
  • Computational fluid dynamics
  • Immersed boundary method
  • Insect flight

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistics and Probability
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • Applied Mathematics


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