A Fly’s Nervous System Aids in Flight

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No wonder houseflies can be so difficult to target: their guidance-control systems are sophisticated enough that they may inspire improvements to control systems in autonomous air vehicles.

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Researchers at Imperial College London have analyzed the nerve connections in the brains of flies that help them maintain a stable gaze during their rapid maneuvering, which in turn prevents them from colliding with obstacles in mid flight.

According to an Imperial College press release, by keeping a constant gaze even while its body changes direction, a fly is able to more efficiently process visual information and modify their movements accordingly.

The feat is accomplished by the close interaction of two groups of neurons. One group receives input from a fly’s eyes, generating electrical signals that inform the fly of its movements; the signals then continue on to the second group of neurons, which update the fly’s neck muscles to stabilize its head (and therefore its line of sight).

The news release explains that, according to lead researcher Holger Krapp, “the pathway from visual signal to head movement is ingeniously designed: it uses information from both eyes, is direct, and does not require heavy computing power” (our emphasis).

Krapp added, “Anyone who has watched one fly chasing another at incredibly high speed, without crashing or bumping into anything, can appreciate the high-end flight performance of these animals.” He also stated that flies can update and process visual information more than ten times faster than humans—no wonder they’re so hard to swat!

The release also said the research may lead to improvements in creating unmanned aerial vehicles that operate autonomously, without the need for remote guidance.

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