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Previews begin October 2007. Premieres January 2008.

Inside the Fly Lab
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Perhaps the world leader in fruit fly (drosophila) research, The Dickinson Lab at California Institute of Technology is located in Pasadena, California.

The exhaustive study of the brain and function of the fruit fly is necessarily esoteric yet endlessly fascinating. Research projects at the lab include the grand unified fly model, aerodynamics of flapping flight, visual-mechanosensory fusion in the control of flight maneuvers, neuromuscular mechanics of steering muscles, flight energetics and regulations of power muscles, visual upwind flight control, visual-olfactory fusion in search behavior, long-distance olfactory orientation, and visual attraction and repulsion during flight: is it a predator or a perch?

How They Do It

Studying drosophila has entailed developing a remarkable array of unique tools. Some of the most fascinating include:

Robofly. Officially called the Dynamically Scaled Flapping Robot, Robofly allows researchers to study the aerodynamics of flapping flight. Robofly has a 60-millimeter wingspan, flaps five times a second, and is submerged in two tons of mineral oil. Each wing can achieve three rotational angles, a feat controlled by six individual computers. Robofly has a mate, Bride of Robofly, which is modified to study the aerodynamics of forward flight.

A multicamera system for tracking freely flying animals in real time. This system employs five digital cameras that shoot at 100 frames per second. The cameras are attached to discrete computers that send data to a sixth computer, which constantly calculates the fly’s position and orientation in three dimensions.

Free Flight Arena (Fly-O-Rama). Affectionately known as Fly-O-Rama, the tracking arena consists of a cylinder 40 centimeters high and a meter in diameter designed to trace the trajectories of fruit flies in 3D using a stereo video system. Computer-controlled LEDs lining the interior of the arena can create visual panoramas that simulate the fly’s-eye view. Solid objects and odors can be placed in the arena to complicate things for the fly.

Mechanical Flight Simulator (Rock-n-Roll Arena). Anyone who has tried to put snow boots on a chihuahua will appreciate the trouble researchers at the fly lab must go to when they tether a fruit fly. Rock-n-Roll Arena is used in conjunction with Fly-O-Rama to create a flight simulator for drosophila. The fly is tethered to a fine tungsten wire and placed within a cylindrical array of computer-controlled LEDs. A wingbeat analyzer (which tracks the two wings in real time) or laser-based force and torque sensors (which measure whole-body aerodynamic forces generated by the fly) measure the output of the fly’s flight system. The instruments are used in two basic configurations. The open-loop mode allows researchers to study the fly’s behavioral response to an unchanging visual stimulus. In closed-loop mode, the fly’s changes in wing motion or flight forces (for example, generating an aerodynamic torque that would cause a rotation to the left) govern alterations in the visual environment, providing the fly with the illusion of movement.

  • Greg Hunt

    Tell us more!

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  • C. Farnet

    You guys rock! This segment on the Caltech fly lab really captured the excitement of basic research. Keep up the good work– we need more young people to get hooked on science, and programs like this will certainly hook a few.

  • will swanson

    The glass was halfway raised on the window at my workbench. A green fly came in the door and went right to the screen of the half-open window, proceeding to crawl around on the portion of the screen that still had glass in front of it. Every now and then it would launch buzzing from the screen and bump the glass, land back on the screen and continue walking around on the screen. It was obviously tryng to find a way from the situation but it kept pointed up and working the top half of the ‘chamber’ it was in, when it could have moved to the bottom half and escaped. As simple as this might seem to an arrogant personality I was absolutely in awe of the behaviour it exhibited. Rather than close the glass at the end of the day I spent several difficult minutes (window at the back of the bench) capturing the fly to return it back outside.
    Marvelous creatures. I enjoyed your show.

  • Doodee

    Thanks for sharing

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  • Gerry Bulatao

    Great to see you in the fly lab, Gwyneth. You are doing terrific work. Ang galing ninyo!

  • AnOnYmOuS

    This was so awesome! I never knew anything about flies until now!

  • thomas lewis

    The best technology is simple in design,the fly is a good example of perfection,only if we could master there wing control,we would have to be careful,I don’t think we could handle the high G loading,we would turn to mush.

  • Karleen Hubley

    I heard about your studies and lab on NPR. When I went to the site I was facinated. I have a small business that designs products which help horse owners releave the onslaught of flies in their barns during the summer months. is the site. I would love to pass on this source to our customers who have so many inquiries about flies. May I do that? It looks like you are offering this as an Im to friends. Thank you Karleen

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  • WaterCloset

    Was that a leash on that fruit fly? Great vid, BTW.

  • Terry Hicks

    fantastic film work the fruit fly is cool

Resources Credits
CURIOUS is made possible through the generous support of TIAA-CREF.

Additional funding for CURIOUS is provided by:
Peter and Merle Mullin
Stan and Barbara Rawn
TIAA-CREFProduced by Thirteen/WNET New York