"I'm interested in how brains work," he says. "Flies are a very important model for understanding how brains process information, and what a brain has to do is critically dependent on the physics of the fly's motion itself."
Using three cameras, the researchers created three-dimensional images of flies inside a large free flight arena, which they dubbed the Fly-O-Rama. It had been thought that flies performed quite differently than larger flying critters, like birds.
But the videos show that a fly that wants to change its direction first accelerates, then goes into a banked turn like a bird, then accelerates again on the new course. But instead of using aerodynamic drag, like an airplane, to change its direction of flight, it somehow rotates itself through the generation of torque. And that's somewhat of a physiological achievement. Try jumping up into the air and twisting, and yet stopping the twisting motion at exactly the right moment.
"How does it [the fly] make the decision that it's turned enough, and it's now time to start counter-turning?" Dickinson asks. "It is rotating so fast that its visual system is blind during the rotation."
And it does all that within an extraordinarily short period of time.
Dickinson thinks there might be many applications for that technology, if we can just figure out how the fly does it. Those little pests might be able to teach us a lot, and many scientists have picked up on that theme.
"There's an old principle in physiology," Dickinson says. "If you want to understand something, study an animal that does it really well."
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.