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.