Our understanding of animal flight has inspired the design of new aerial robots with more effective flight capacities through the process of biomimetics and bioinspiration. The aerodynamic origin of the elevated performance of flying animals remains, however, poorly understood. In this themed issue, animal flight research and aerial robot development coalesce to offer a broader perspective on the current advances and future directions in these coevolving fields of research. Together, four reviews summarize and 14 reports contribute to our understanding of low Reynolds number flight. This area of applied aerodynamics research is challenging to dissect due to the complicated flow phenomena that include laminar– turbulent flow transition, laminar separation bubbles, delayed stall and nonlinear vortex dynamics. Our mechanistic understanding of low Reynolds number flight has perhaps been advanced most by the development of dynamically scaled robot models and new specialized wind tunnel facilities: in particular, the tiltable Lund flight tunnel for animal migration research and the recently developed AFAR hypobaric wind tunnel for high-altitude animal flight studies. These world-class facilities are now complemented with a specialized low Reynolds number wind tunnel for studying the effect of turbulence on animal and robot flight in much greater detail than previously possible. This is particular timely, because the study of flight in extremely laminar versus turbulent flow opens a new frontier in our understanding of animal flight. Advancing this new area will offer inspiration for developing more efficient high-altitude aerial robots and removes roadblocks for aerial robots operating in turbulent urban environments.