Although there are many insects with wings that fold down beneath covers when not in use, the earwig’s wings fold the most compactly. Scientists have now copied that folding mechanism, with an eye towards using it in human technology.
The team of Japanese and British researchers started by examining folded-down earwig hind wings, utilizing tomographic imaging – this is an umbrella term for any type of imaging that involves the use of penetrating waves.
What they discovered was a complex and unique folding pattern, which the fossil record shows has remained unchanged for at least 280 million years. Not only does this pattern keep the relatively fragile hind wings safely stowed beneath the more Texture Spray Machine robust forewings, but it also allows them to remain flexible, so that the insect isn’t impeded as it burrows in the soil or squeezes through tight spaces.
Initially, the team replicated the pattern using classic drawing techniques. They have also created a computer program, however, which shows users how to apply the pattern to flat objects of various shapes, sizes and materials.
It is now hoped that once developed further, the folding technology could be applied to items such as ultra-compact fans and umbrellas, along with fold-out drone wings, antennae reflectors, or photovoltaic panels on spacecraft.
“Nature has consistently been an everlasting source of inspiration,” says Oxford University’s Prof. Zhong You, co-author of a paper on the research. “Bioinspired technologies keep offering some of the most efficient and sustainable ways to meet many of the challenges of the future.”
Also taking part in the study were scientists from Japan’s Kyushu University, Hokkaido University, and the University of Tokyo. The paper was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.