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29 November 2010

Insects Compute Optimal Flight Plans

Anyone who travels much by air knows that pilots try to ride the wind. Flights may even deviate substantially from the shortest-distance route if the wind is strong enough elsewhere. But of course the wind is not likely moving exactly toward your destination. Add to this the fact that the wind also varies with altitude, and the problem of designing the optimal route of flight becomes highly complex.

It is a problem in the calculus of variations (optimizing functionals rather than mere functions) and is analogous to the optics problem of predicting the path of light through a medium with variant refractive index. But this approach requires analytical wind fields, described with functions, rather than numerically derived winds described, for instance, on a grid. In practice the optimal routing problem is solved using various iterative methods. Amazingly, migratory insects also solve this type of problem.

Research using entomological radar has found that migratory insects such as butterflies and moths perform their own flight planning in order to optimize their flights across continents. They select the right time to ride the wind, and they determine the right altitude and flight heading to reach their destination (rather than where the wind is going). As one of the researchers explained:

Migratory butterflies and moths have evolved an amazing capacity to use favourable tailwinds. By flying at the heights where the wind currents are fastest, migratory moths can travel between their summer and winter grounds in just a few nights.

And what is the evidence that this amazing capacity evolved? What mutations produced it? And how did evolution create the ability of the insects know when to start their journey and where they should go? You know the answer: “We’re not sure but we know they evolved because evolution is a fact.” Religion drives science and it matters.

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