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Building an Enhanced Flight Mill for the Study of Tethered Insect Flight

Published: March 10th, 2021



1Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago

This protocol uses three-dimensional (3D) printers and laser cutters found in makerspaces in order to create a more flexible flight mill design. By using this technology, researchers can reduce costs, enhance design flexibility, and generate reproducible work when constructing their flight mills for tethered insect flight studies.

Makerspaces have a high potential of enabling researchers to develop new techniques and to work with novel species in ecological research. This protocol demonstrates how to take advantage of the technology found in makerspaces in order to build a more versatile flight mill for a relatively low cost. Given that this study extracted its prototype from flight mills built in the last decade, this protocol focuses more on outlining divergences made from the simple, modern flight mill. Previous studies have already shown how advantageous flight mills are to measuring flight parameters such as speed, distance, or periodicity. Such mills have allowed researchers to associate these parameters with morphological, physiological, or genetic factors. In addition to these advantages, this study discusses the benefits of using the technology in makerspaces, like 3D printers and laser cutters, in order to build a more flexible, sturdy, and collapsible flight mill design. Most notably, the 3D printed components of this design allow the user to test insects of various sizes by making the heights of the mill arm and infrared (IR) sensors adjustable. The 3D prints also enable the user to easily disassemble the machine for quick storage or transportation to the field. Moreover, this study makes greater use of magnets and magnetic paint to tether insects with minimal stress. Lastly, this protocol details a versatile analysis of flight data through computer scripts that efficiently separate and analyze differentiable flight trials within a single recording. Although more labor-intensive, applying the tools available in makerspaces and on online 3D modeling programs facilitates multidisciplinary and process-orientated practices and helps researchers avoid costly, premade products with narrowly adjustable dimensions. By taking advantage of the flexibility and reproducibility of technology in makerspaces, this protocol promotes creative flight mill design and inspires open science.

Given how intractable the dispersal of insects is in the field, the flight mill has become a common laboratory tool to address an important ecological phenomenon - how insects move. As a consequence, since the pioneers of the flight mill1,2,3,4 ushered in six decades of flight mill design and construction, there have been noticeable design shifts as technologies improved and became more integrated into scientific communities. Over time, automated data-collecting software replaced chart recorders, and flight mill arms transitioned from glass ....

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1. Build the Flight Mill in a Makerspace

  1. Laser cut and assemble the acrylic plastic support structure.
    1. Use 8 (304.8 mm x 609.6 mm x 3.175 mm) thick transparent acrylic sheets to construct the acrylic plastic support structure. Ensure that the material is not polycarbonate, which looks similar to acrylic but will melt instead of getting cut under the laser.
    2. Locate the laser cutter in the makerspace. This protocol assumes the makerspace has a laser cutter as referenced in the

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Flight data were obtained experimentally during Winter 2020 using field collected J. haematoloma from Florida as the model insects (Bernat, A. V. and Cenzer, M. L. , 2020, unpublished data). Representative flight trials were conducted in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, as shown below in Figure 6, Figure 7, Figure 8, and Figure 9. The flight m.......

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The simple, modern flight mill provides a range of advantages for researchers interested in studying tethered insect flight by delivering a reliable and automated design that tests multiple insects efficiently and cost-effectively13,31,35. Likewise, there is a strong incentive for researchers to adopt fast-emerging technologies and techniques from industry and other scientific fields as a means to build experimental to.......

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I would like to thank Meredith Cenzer for purchasing all flight mill materials and providing continuous feedback from the construction to the write-up of the project. I also thank Ana Silberg for her contributions to Finally, I thank the Media Arts, Data, and Design Center (MADD) at the University of Chicago for permission to use its communal makerspace equipment, technology, and supplies free of charge.


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Name Company Catalog Number Comments
180 Ω Resistor E-Projects 10EP514180R Carbon film; stiff 24 gauge lead.
19 Gauge Non-Magnetic Hypodermic Steel Tubing MicroGroup 304H19RW 
2.2 kΩ Resistor Adafruit 2782 Carbon film; stiff 24 gauge lead.
3D Printer FlashForge 700355100638
3D Printer Filament FlashForge 700355100638 Diameter 1.75 mm; 1kg/roll.
3D Printing Slicing Software FlashPrint 4.4.0
Acrylic Plastic Sheets Blick Art Supplies 28945-1006
Aluminum Foil Target 253-01-0860
Breadboard Power Supply HandsOn Tech MDU1025 Can take 6.5V to 12V input and can produce 3.3V and 5V.
DI-1100 USB Data Logger DATAQ Instruments DI-1100 Has 4 differential armored analog inputs.
Electrical Wires Striveday B077HWS5XV 24 gauge solid wire.
Entomological Pins BioQuip 1208S2 Size 2; diameter 0.45 mm.
Filtered 20 uL Pipette Tip Fisher Scientific 21-402-550
Hot Glue Gun with Hot Glue Joann Fabrics 17366956
IR Sensor Adafruit 2167 This is the 3 mm IR version; works up to 25 cm.
Large Clear Vinyl Tubing Home Depot T10007008 Inner diameter 3/8 in; outer diameter 1/2 in; length 20 ft.
Large Magnets Bunting EP654 Low-friction N42 neodymium; diameter 0.394 in; length 0.157 in; holding force 4.9 lb. 
Laser Cutter  Universal Laser Systems  PLS6.75
M5 Hex Nut Home Depot 204274112 Thread pitch 0.8 mm; screw length 20 mm; diameter 5 mm.
M5 Long Iron Screws Home Depot 204283784 Philips pan head; thread pitch 0.8 mm; screw length 20 mm; diameter 5 mm.
M5 Short Iron Screws Home Depot 203540129 Philips pan head; thread pitch 0.8 mm; screw length 10 mm; diameter 5 mm.
Neoprene Rubber Sheet Grainger 60DC16 Length 12 in; width 12 in; depth 1/8in.
Online 3D Modeling Software Autodesk 2019_10_14 offers a free account.
Power Adaptor Adafruit 63 9 VDC 1000mA regulated switching; input voltage DC 3.3V 5V.
Small Clear Vinyl Tubing Home Depot T10007005 Inner diameter 1/4 in; outer diameter 3/8 in; 20 ft long.
Small Magnets Bunting N42P120060 Low-friction N42 neodymium; diameter 0.120 in; length 0.060 in; holding force 0.5 lb.
Solderless MB-102 Breadboard  Adafruit 239 830 tie points; length 17 cm; width 5.5 cm; input voltage, DC 3.3 V 5 V.
Sophisticated Finishes Iron Metallic Surfacer Blick Art Supplies 27105-2584
Wire Cutters Target  84-031W

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