Tethered and put through their paces in the lab, they tend to get a bit cranky. But they have the most sensitive noses on the planet, fantastic internal gyros, the most complex visual system known, and muscles so powerful they can instantly lift twice their own body weight. So, scientists are willing to put up with a little petulance in order to study them.
We're talking fruit flies here. Drosophila melanogaster. And what we want to know is how they stay aloft at near-stall conditions, how they can find a smelly bit of rotten fruit a kilometer away, how they take off and land in upside-down positions, and how they manage to process enormous amounts of sensory information in an instant to control a whole range of flight performance - among other such pesky mysteries. Funded in part by the Office of Naval Research, Dr. Michael Dickinson (aka Flyman) at UC Berkeley studies the dynamics of insect flight control - not in airplanes, they're too big to play by the same rules - but in fruit flies and hawkmoths, blowflies and lacewings.
Why? So that we can learn to fabricate tiny search, exploration, and reconnaissance tools that can operate cheaply and autonomously for mine, chemical, and biological warfare agent detection, for surveillance, survey, analysis, inspection, even communication. "The missions will become obvious when all the problems are solved," says Dr. Hal Guard, director of ONR's Human Systems S & T department. "Once Dickinson gets the biology and the physics down - and he's just about there - the real fun begins, and robots that mimic these tiny creatures will become a reality."