What are butterflies really up to? Find out with a wind tunnel and high-speed cameras.

I have been a full-time teacher for the last year and a half. This designation is unofficial and I am still learning how to entertain teach my son by engaging in science, reading, arts, and game theory.

Butterflies have recently captured George’s attention.

George and a Butterfly

It was fun exploring the lifecycle of a butterfly going from eggs to a caterpillar to a pupa to finally a beautiful butterfly. I am sure there are life lessons in this metamorphosis, but that is for another day.

Butterfly life cycle

George learned by observation. I learned by observation. Butterflies have a unique flight path. They have had a lot of time to learn how to fly and they treat the air like water. What can we learn from butterflies? Well, to go next level, you need some butterflies, a wind tunnel, and some high-speed cameras to slow down the butterfly’s motion and see what they are doing with their wings. Researchers at Lund University did just that.

Uncovering the Secrets to Butterfly Flight Using MATLAB Image Processing and Data Analysis

In a complex experiment, the researchers used MATLAB to calculate aerodynamic forces and analyze the butterfly kinematics. They discovered that the butterflies’ flexible wings provide the impulse and increased efficiency that results in their distinct flight pattern.

The thrust generated during the upstroke and clap of a butterfly flying at approximately 2 ms-1. (Image credit: L. C. Johansson and P. Henningsson)

It turns out that the butterfly wing is flexible. This allows the butterfly to form a cup to create a tremendous amount of thrust. Planes, jets, and drones all have rigid wings. Understanding how butterflies fly could lead to innovations with other flying machines.

Read more about the butterfly project on MathWorks.com. Science!

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