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Despite a wealth of evidence demonstrating extraordinary maximal performance, little is known about the routine flight performance of insects. We present a set of techniques for benchmarking performance characteristics of insects in free flight, demonstrated using a model species, and comment on the significance of the performance observed. Free-flying blowflies (Calliphora vicina) were filmed inside a novel mirrored arena comprising a large (1.6 m1.6 m1.6 m) corner-cube reflector using a single high-speed digital video camera (250 or 500 fps). This arrangement permitted accurate reconstruction of the flies' 3-dimensional trajectories without the need for synchronisation hardware, by virtue of the multiple reflections of a subject within the arena. Image sequences were analysed using custom-written automated tracking software, and processed using a self-calibrating bundle adjustment procedure to determine the subject's instantaneous 3-dimensional position. We illustrate our method by using these trajectory data to benchmark the routine flight performance envelope of our flies. Flight speeds were most commonly observed between 1.2 ms(-1) and 2.3 ms(-1), with a maximum of 2.5 ms(-1). Our flies tended to dive faster than they climbed, with a maximum descent rate (-2.4 ms(-1)) almost double the maximum climb rate (1.2 ms(-1)). Modal turn rate was around 240 degrees s(-1), with maximal rates in excess of 1700 degrees s(-1). We used the maximal flight performance we observed during normal flight to construct notional physical limits on the blowfly flight envelope, and used the distribution of observations within that notional envelope to postulate behavioural preferences or physiological and anatomical constraints. The flight trajectories we recorded were never steady: rather they were constantly accelerating or decelerating, with maximum tangential accelerations and maximum centripetal accelerations on the order of 3 g.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS One

Publication Date





Acceleration, Algorithms, Animals, Automation, Behavior, Animal, Biomechanical Phenomena, Calibration, Diptera, Electronic Data Processing, Flight, Animal, Models, Statistical, Optics and Photonics, Photogrammetry, Signal Processing, Computer-Assisted, Time Factors