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Flight speed control in Drosophila: Behavioral analysis and biomimetic implementation

Applicant Fry Steven
Number 125419
Funding scheme Interdisciplinary projects
Research institution Institut für Neuroinformatik Universität Zürich Irchel und ETH Zürich
Institution of higher education ETH Zurich - ETHZ
Main discipline Other disciplines of Engineering Sciences
Start/End 01.03.2010 - 31.08.2012
Approved amount 208'875.00
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Keywords (12)

Flight; control; Drosophila; Robot; Interdisciplinary; Biomimetic; autonomous; robotics; behavior; Insect; bionics; vision

Lay Summary (English)

Lay summary
Despite huge advances in the design of autonomous flying robots, the flight abilities of animals, such as the tiny fruit fly, remain unmatched. In contrast to the design-based development pursued by engineers, Nature's solutions are the result of millions of years of evolution. The bionics approach aims to learn the relevant principles found in Nature and transfer these in a meaningful way into technological systems. This project aims to extract the basic biological control principles systems underlying flight control in the fruit fly Drosophila and transfer them into a flying robot to achieve robust autonomous flight control. We will perform behavioral experiments in free-flying flies using a wind tunnel equipped with a 3D position tracking and a virtual reality display. These results will provide a quantitative control model of the fly's sensori-motor flight control strategies. We will then transfer the learnt control principles onto a flying robotic platform (a quadrotor helicopter), with the aim to achieve similar efficiency and robustness of flight control as observed in the fly. To mimic the fly's visual control abilities, such as the control of flight speed and altitude, object avoidance, etc., we will equip the quadrotor with a bio-morphic vision sensor that emulates the function of the fly's visual system (in collaboration with Dr. Giacomo Indiveri, INI, ETH/University Zürich). To test and improve the bio-mimetic design of the quadrotor, we will perform extensive testing in simulation and using a fully controlled robotic test environment (in collaboration with Prof. D'Andrea, IDSC, ETH Zürich). Our interdisciplinary approach aims to both improve our understanding of biological systems and provide new design principles for technical applications. By applying rigorous concepts from control system engineering in a biological system, we not only gain a better understanding of biological control principles, but also extract biomimetic design principles that can provide future flying robots with improved control strategies.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 21.02.2013

Responsible applicant and co-applicants



Embodied linearity of speed control in Drosophila melanogaster.
Medici Vasco, Fry Steven (2012), Embodied linearity of speed control in Drosophila melanogaster., in J R Soc Interface, 9(77), 3260-3267.


Group / person Country
Types of collaboration
ETH Switzerland (Europe)
- Research Infrastructure
ETH / UZH Switzerland (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results

Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
ZNZ Symposium 16.09.2011 Zürich

Knowledge transfer events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Date Place Persons involved
ZNZ Symposium 2011 16.09.2011 Zürich

Use-inspired outputs


Name Year

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
130111 A nonlinear oscillator model for Drosophila flight control 01.04.2010 Interdisciplinary projects
116353 Implementation of novel behavioral read-out systems for the analysis of flight control in the fruit fly Drosophila 01.08.2007 Project funding


Flies perform exceedingly fast and precise flight maneuvers that exceed the capabilities of current technologies by far. The identification of the underlying flight control mechanisms offers insights into basic principles of neuromotor control and provide biomimetic design principles for autonomous microrobots, including micro air vehicles (MAVs). The fruit fly is a powerful model organism for flight control due to its well-explored physiology and flight biomechanics, as well as the availability of genetic tools that allow highly specific manipulations of the neuromotor control circuits. In my research group, flight control mechanisms are explored with an interdisciplinary approach that includes behavioral analysis in wild type and transgenic fruit flies and reverse-engineering the neuromotor control systems using state-of-the-art measurement technology. Strong collaborations exist with experts in control theory, microelectronics, physics, genetics and medical research, who contribute with specialized know-how and research tools in their respective fields. This approach has proven highly successful for the identification of visual processing principles, the integration of visual and mechanosensory feedback, as well as a quantitative characterization of lift and flight speed responses. This proposal aims to extend our understanding of visuomotor flight control principles by integrating behavioral analyses in free-flying flies and performing robotic experiments in the Flying Machine Arena (in collaboration with Prof. D'Andrea, ETHZ). For this, a feedback control model will be reverse-engineered based on behavioral experiments in free-flying fruit flies, the model implemented using Simulink and transferred onto a quad-rotor with appropriate parameter scaling.Insights into the control process gained from experiments in the flies and the robot will be reflected by adapting the control model appropriately. Conversely, the improved model will be validated against measured responses of the flies and tested for stable robotic flight control to ensure internal consistency. Key objectives 1) To specify a feedback model for flight speed control and extend it based on behavioral analyses 2) Implement and test the fly's flight speed controller on a quad-rotor Methods to be employed 1) Free-flight analysis: ‘FlyTrack’, a wind tunnel equipped with real-time 3D path tracking and Virtual Reality display technology, and extended with high-speed videography 2) Tethered flight ‘simulators’: Custom-built LED displays and Compact RIO controller; MEMS sensors for direct flight force/torque measurements; Digital high-speed vision for real-time analysis of wing kinematics. 3) Flying Machine Arena: Robotic testing using a quad-rotor equipped with on-board and off-board controllers and flown in a specialized testing space (collab. D'Andrea) 4) VLSI technology: Implementation of neuromorphic vision sensors (collab. Indiveri)Biomimetic principles of sensory processing and motor control promise to meet the high requirements for the implementation in autonomous micro-flyers by providing robustness and efficiency despite severe size and power limitations. The proposed project integrates a detailed functional analysis of flight control strategies in Drosophila with the implementation of identified control principles in advanced microelectronic and robotic systems.