Scott Jagow: When the Wright Brothers designed the first airplane, they did a lot of bird watching, to see how birds flew.

A century later, researchers are watching a different flying beast: bats. They're hoping bats will show them the way to create the next generation of military planes. Dan Grech has our story.

Dan Grech: Birds and insects fly with relatively rigid wings, as do the airplanes we modeled after them. But bats, those darting nocturnal shadows, fly with flexible wings.

Bat wings have more than two dozen independent joints, much like a human hand. That could help engineers design flexible-wing aircrafts that could maneuver in tight spaces.

Brown University biologist Sharon Swartz is leading the research team. She says airplane wings have traditionally had complex sensors located at a few points on the wing.

Sharon Swartz: Biological systems intrinsically take the opposite approach. They use very simple sensors, but there are a lot of them and they're distributed all over the wings.

The U.S. military has taken notice of the research — the Air Force is investing $6 million over the next five years. The hope is that bats, not birds, will influence the next generation of flying machines.

I'm Dan Grech for Marketplace.