UW News

March 18, 2015

New Air Force center at UW learns from animals for better flight

UW News

Yonatan Munk, a postdoctoral researcher in biology, studies how moths fly.

Yonatan Munk, a postdoctoral researcher in biology, studies how moths fly.U of Washington

Even the most advanced aircraft can’t fly as skillfully as a housefly.

That’s why a new center focusing on learning how animals move, navigate and use their senses is being established at the University of Washington with partners at other universities in the U.S. and Europe.

The Air Force Center of Excellence on Nature-Inspired Flight Technologies and Ideas is one of six nationwide centers funded by the U.S. Air Force and the only to focus on how elements in nature can help solve challenging engineering and technological problems related to building small, remotely operated aircraft.

Read about recently published research on insect wings and flight.

“Our goal is to reverse-engineer how natural systems accomplish challenging tasks,” said center director Tom Daniel, a UW biology professor who holds the Joan and Richard Komen Endowed University Chair. “We are really trying to push hard on next-generation robotic systems and technologies that draw on how biology solves problems of control, complex maneuvering and manipulation.”

The center is housed within the Department of Biology at the UW in partnership with the College of Engineering, and has strong ties to two Washington Research Foundation initiatives: the UW Institute for Neuroengineering and the UW eScience Institute.

Researchers from Case Western Reserve University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland also are part of the research team. International partners include Imperial College London, the Royal Veterinary College, University of Bristol, University of Sussex and Oxford University, all in the U.K., and Lund University in Sweden.

The center will focus on three main research areas:

  • Locating objects: Researchers will look at how animals are able to find prey, mates or food sources by encoding and processing information through their senses.
  • Navigating in complex environments: Insects and bats often fly in windy and crowded spaces, skillfully avoiding collisions. Scientists will study how their neurological and physiological systems function to allow them to move in these ways.
  • Navigating in sensory-deprived environments: Animals often fly in low light or nearly complete darkness, and in places where their ability to smell and hear might be compromised. Researchers will look more broadly at how animals use sensory information and how they make decisions about flight under different contexts.

Learning from the behavior of insects and animals could inspire more advanced micro-air vehicles, or small, flying robots. These could be used in difficult search-and-rescue missions, or to help detect explosives or mines when it would be too dangerous for humans to go on foot or in vehicles.

The Manduca sexta moth, as seen flying through a virtual reality forest scene in the UW lab.

The Manduca sexta moth, as seen flying through a virtual reality forest scene in the UW lab.U of Washington

“Small autonomous unmanned vehicles have the ability to move into spaces and search for injured people or assess structural health in situations where human emergency responders simply cannot access in a safe way, such as in the Oso, Washington, mudslide or the Fukushima plant after the 2011 tsunami in Japan,” said Kristi Morgansen, a UW associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and one of the center’s faculty leads.

Researchers at the UW will work in the center’s core lab in Kincaid Hall. A large animal wind tunnel to test how animals fly and process sensory information is already in place there, and the team hopes to build an additional motion-capture system to study animal flight and even quadrotors, small helicopters that could become “smarter” flyers by using the sensing abilities of animals.

Aside from these applications, center researchers will also develop micro-air vehicles for environmental monitoring. A micro-scaled quadrotor could, for example, navigate through a thick forest to the tree canopy and measure temperature, moisture and gases at different levels in the atmosphere. Or, small unmanned aircraft could be used to track ocean mammals such as whales for more consistent monitoring.

Another specific project looks at how insect wings actually serve as both a way to fly and offer real-time measurement of where the insect is moving in space.

Funding for the new center, which comes from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, is up to $9 million spread over six years, provided the center passes a renewal every two years. The Department of Biology, the Department of Applied Mathematics, the College of Arts & Sciences, the College of Engineering and the Office of the Provost also are providing money for the center.

Darrin Howell, a UW postbaccalaureate researcher in biology, records the electrical activity sent up and down the spinal cord of moths.

Darrin Howell, a UW postbaccalaureate researcher in biology, records the electrical activity sent up and down the spinal cord of moths.U of Washington

At the UW, researchers ranging from high school students and undergraduates to graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty members will work in the new center. Other UW faculty leads are Steve Brunton, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Matt Reynolds, associate professor of electrical engineering and of computer science and engineering; and Jeff Riffell, assistant professor of biology.

For the Air Force, the funding is part of an investment in basic research with universities and industry laboratories to help transition research results to support the Air Force’s needs, without specific applications or products in mind.

“That being said, it is possible that this information could be used for enabling more efficient aircraft flight, better control of remotely piloted vehicles or even better capabilities for rescue operations,” said Patrick Bradshaw, program officer with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. “Being able to understand and mimic nature may enable us to do many other things we don’t even realize we can do yet.”


For more information, contact Tom Daniel at danielt@uw.edu or 206-543-1659.