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Flight Lessons from Bats, Birds and Insects

  • Goal: Biologically-inspired flight control algorithms that enable UAVs to navigate more effectively in cluttered environments.
  • Applications: Unmanned aircraft for military missions and disaster recovery.

Can studying the flight dynamics of bats, birds and insects lead to a new generation of unmanned aerial vehicles that can navigate more effectively in cluttered environments for military, disaster recovery and other missions? To maneuver as well as winged animals in tight places such as forests and caves, and land as safely on variable and moving terrain, an engineered system would have to incorporate unprecedented sensing and control capabilities while satisfying complex physical design, weight and computational requirements.

Toward that end, a team of College of Engineering (ENG) researchers—Professors John Baillieul (ME, SE) and Ioannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE) and Assistant Professor Calin Belta (ME, SE)—is developing a set of biologically-inspired flight control algorithms. In collaboration with a biologist and computer scientist at Boston University and multidisciplinary researchers at three other universities under an Office of Naval Research grant, the ENG team is carefully studying and modeling the dynamics of different airborne species.

“We’re learning how these animals move from place to place and react to obstacles, and rethinking flight control algorithms from the ground up,” says Belta. “Classical flight control algorithms emphasize stability and safety, but it may be advantageous to modify them so vehicles can react quickly to the environment.”

In one scenario, Baillieul, Belta and Paschalidis will use computer-enhanced images of bat trajectories through forests to develop algorithms approximating the bats’ flight, and ultimately test them on real vehicles. Recognizing that bats and other winged creatures often fly in formation, the ENG team’s work will leverage its previous research on multiple robot formation control and feedback control of mobile vehicles.

“We’ve worked with ground-based robots and operated them in formation,” says Bailleiul. “The goal is to take what we know about controlling groups of mobile robots and apply it to aerial vehicles that must rapidly maneuver through clutter.”