Last year, we brought you the story of tech company AeroVironment’s life-size artificial hummingbird, that flies solely by flapping its wings. Now, a group of Japanese researchers has successfully built and flown a flapping-wing-powered swallowtail butterfly. Besides looking incredibly cool, the life-size “ornithopter” has also proven a principle that could have big implications in the field of aerodynamics.

Swallowtails’ wings are unusually large compared to their bodies, and their forewings overlap their rear wings. Because of these unique factors, their flapping frequency is considerably lower than that of other butterflies, and their range of wing motion is more restricted. This means that they have limited control of the aerodynamic force of their wings, and that their body motions are simply reactions to the flapping motion - in other types of butterflies, their body motions do exert control over their aerodynamics.

Not only did the researchers copy the size and shape of the swallowtail’s wings, but they even replicated the thin membranes and veins that cover them. They built the ornithopter in order to prove that forward flight can be achieved through flapping alone, without a feedback system controlling the motion.

Now that it’s been proven that such flight does not require complex algorithms or onboard processors, it’s possible that bird- and insect-like surveillance Micro Air Vehicles could be paying us a visit sooner rather than later.

The full report on the ornithopter is available in IOP Publishing’s Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.