Rotational accelerations stabilize leading edge vortices on revolving fly wings

D. Lentink, M.H. Dickinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

318 Citations (Scopus)


The aerodynamic performance of hovering insects is largely explained by the presence of a stably attached leading edge vortex (LEV) on top of their wings. Although LEVs have been visualized on real, physically modeled, and simulated insects, the physical mechanisms responsible for their stability are poorly understood. To gain fundamental insight into LEV stability on flapping fly wings we expressed the Navier–Stokes equations in a rotating frame of reference attached to the wing's surface. Using these equations we show that LEV dynamics on flapping wings are governed by three terms: angular, centripetal and Coriolis acceleration. Our analysis for hovering conditions shows that angular acceleration is proportional to the inverse of dimensionless stroke amplitude, whereas Coriolis and centripetal acceleration are proportional to the inverse of the Rossby number. Using a dynamically scaled robot model of a flapping fruit fly wing to systematically vary these dimensionless numbers, we determined which of the three accelerations mediate LEV stability. Our force measurements and flow visualizations indicate that the LEV is stabilized by the `quasi-steady' centripetal and Coriolis accelerations that are present at low Rossby number and result from the propeller-like sweep of the wing. In contrast, the unsteady angular acceleration that results from the back and forth motion of a flapping wing does not appear to play a role in the stable attachment of the LEV. Angular acceleration is, however, critical for LEV integrity as we found it can mediate LEV spiral bursting, a high Reynolds number effect. Our analysis and experiments further suggest that the mechanism responsible for LEV stability is not dependent on Reynolds number, at least over the range most relevant for insect flight (100
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2705-2719
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number16
Publication statusPublished - 2009


  • low reynolds-numbers
  • unsteady aerodynamic performance
  • insect flight
  • hovering flight
  • wake interactions
  • flapping flight
  • model hawkmoth
  • vortex
  • forces
  • lift

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