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Watch this mosquito-inspired drone light up and avoid a crash

Some mosquitoes are night owls of the insect world, able to avoid running into walls, even in complete darkness. Now, researchers have figured out how these pesky insects do this, and they’ve used that information to build a sensor that may one day help keep helicopters safe.

The team homed in on an organ only some insects possess: an array of about 12,000 cells arranged in a circle around the base of each antenna—like an upside-down umbrella—that detects how the antenna wobbles. The researchers filmed Culex quinquefasciatus, a mosquito that transmits Zika and West Nile viruses, flying at different distances from the ground or a wall. The many thousands of resulting images helped the group visualize how air moves off the insect’s long, slender wings and how that flow changes as the mosquito moves closer to a surface (as seen in the video above).

Using computer simulations of this flow, the scientists determined that the wings generate a downward draft that gets disrupted the closer the insect gets to a surface. As that air circles back, it greatly affects the air flow around the antenna, warning the mosquito of an impending collision, the team reports today in Science.

The team then outfitted a palm-size drone with a similar sensor and fitted it with lights that glow when the sensor detected a surface. The resulting “mosquito-copter” is able to detect surfaces all on its own, even in the dark.

Given how lightweight and energy efficient this sensor is—only about 9.2 grams—it could help drones and other flying vehicles deliver packages or inspect bridges more efficiently—and in the dark. And, the team adds, there’s no reason why the sensor wouldn’t work on a full-size helicopter.