UVA Engineering Team Studying Insect Flight to Build Robots - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

UVA Engineering Team Studying Insect Flight to Build Robots

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A team of engineers at the University of Virginia is creating three-dimensional simulations of insect flight to build tiny, aerial robots.  The Flow Simulation Research Group is observing and applying how insects use their wings to fly.

The researchers say the combination of biology and mechanical engineering is allowing them to break new ground. 

"We are the first time to look at the insect flight in a really detailed way and look at all kinds of aspects related to flapping flight," said Haibo Dong, a UVA engineering associate professor leading the research.

They are using their small-scale flight analysis to advance the technology behind micro-air vehicles.

Chengyu Li, a second-year UVA engineering graduate student, said, "You can learn more from nature and you can observe first from the nature how the nature fliers really do the flapping flight."

A team of 10 undergraduate and graduate UVA engineering students start by using nets to capture insects like cicadas, dragonflies and butterflies. 

"Cicadas are heavy-lift fliers, dragonflies have unmatched maneuverability, and so we look at the mechanisms with which they accomplish their flight and we break them down and try to apply them to the design of micro-air vehicles," said Yousaf Bajwa, a third-year UVA engineering undergraduate student.

They then place the insect in a studio that features three video cameras that record at 1,000 frames per second.  After the video is captured, the researchers recreate the insect's flight as a 3-D model.

The goal is to observe concepts like fluid dynamics, aerodynamic performance, and wing deformation and ultimately build a working micro-air vehicle for the community's benefit.

Li said, "The idea here is whether we can inspire from different kind of species and learn the mechanism they use and combine them together to use for the future of micro-air vehicle design."

"Let's say there is a fire or something and it is a hazardous site," Bajwa said.  "You can't send people in there so you send a fleet of micro-air vehicles in there to do the same job for you."

The engineers have caught and looked at hundreds of insects in the last four years.  They say it is important to observe and record the creatures in an environment that allows free, untethered flight.

"Micro aviation - we have never achieved that kind of a level yet so we hope through these kinds of efforts, gradually we're going to move in that direction and the sooner, the better," Dong said.

The research is funded by Air Force grants and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award.  Haibo says the Air Force has set a goal to design and manufacture autonomous, insect-sized robots by 2030.

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