Engineering Innovation Podcast and Radio Series

Butterfly Engineering

PostedJuly 31, 2016

Download File (mp3)

Anchor Lede: Monarch butterflies fly so efficiently that they are able to make incredibly long migrations. The secret may lie in the tiny structures that color their wings.

Randy Atkins: You might be surprised to know that butterflies have scales. Amy Lang, an aerospace engineer at the University of Alabama, explains.

Amy Lang: If you catch a butterfly, the dust that comes off in your fingertips…that’s the scales. So to us it looks like dust, but if you look at it under the microscope, they look like tiny roof shingles that are just perfectly arranged over the wing.

Randy Atkins: Lang says the shape and pattern of the Monarch scales likely help flying efficiency. In experiments using a very sensitive camera she examined the flight of eleven live butterflies. Then did it again, with their scales removed and…

Amy Lang: …there was a decrease, a 37.8% decrease, in their flight efficiency.

Randy Atkins: Lang wants to find out exactly how the scales work and recreate it to make small, lightweight flying machines that don’t need much power. With the National Academy of Engineering, Randy Atkins, WTOP News.