Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Floris van Breugel has received a prestigious $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to advance the resilience of autonomous robots, taking inspiration from the remarkable resilience exhibited by fruit flies in their flight. This breakthrough research has the potential to greatly impact disaster response and surveillance systems, such as drones used in monitoring wildfires.
Modern robotic systems often struggle to adapt to new environments or recover from physical damage sustained during disaster response missions. In contrast, living organisms, like fruit flies, display an impressive ability to swiftly adjust their behavior when faced with new situations. The key lies in redundancy and flexibility within their sensory and muscle control systems.
Professor van Breugel’s project aims to leverage scientific insights gained from studying fruit flies to develop robotic systems that are more resilient. By translating emerging knowledge of insect neuroscience, the team hopes to equip autonomous robots with the capacity to adapt quickly and effectively.
“This highly competitive award, addressing a topic of significant importance, underscores the research excellence of Professor van Breugel and the Mechanical Engineering department at UNR,” stated Petros Voulgaris, the department chair.
The research conducted by van Breugel aligns with the Unmanned Vehicles research pillar of the College of Engineering. His fascination with the intersection of engineering and flies dates back to his undergraduate years, where he worked on a project inspired by birds and insects. Through this experience, he became captivated by the challenge of controlling mechanical flying devices and adapting them to unforeseen circumstances.
Van Breugel’s investigation involves exploring how animals repurpose and reprogram their sensorimotor systems “on the fly,” enabling them to compensate rapidly for internal damage or external disturbances. To support his endeavor, he is collaborating with esteemed experts in insect neuroscience, including Michael Dickinson from the California Institute of Technology and Yvette Fisher from U.C. Berkeley, who have made significant contributions to brain imaging in flies. Bing Bruton, an associate professor of biology at the University of Washington, brings her expertise in computational neuroscience to the project.
The importance of studying flies in engineering and neuroscience stems from their combination of sophisticated behavior and relatively simple brains, making them an ideal model for detailed investigation. Van Breugel aims to distill the principles underlying neural processing in flies into fundamental engineering principles that can be applied in the development of robotics systems.
Moreover, as part of the grant, research opportunities will be offered to middle school, high school, and undergraduate students. These students will have the chance to engage in neuroscience and robotics research and contribute to the project. Additionally, van Breugel and his team plan to create open-source content to enhance neuroscience literacy among engineering students, supporting the Student Engagement operational pillar of the College of Engineering.
Why is resiliency important in robotic systems?
Resiliency is crucial in robotic systems, especially those used in disaster response and surveillance. It allows robots to adapt quickly to new environments or recover from damages sustained, ensuring their effectiveness and reliability.
How do fruit flies exhibit resiliency?
Fruit flies demonstrate resiliency through their ability to adjust their behavior rapidly when faced with new situations. Their sensory and muscle control systems possess redundancy and flexibility, enabling them to overcome internal damage or external perturbations.
How will this research benefit unmanned vehicles?
This research has the potential to enhance the resilience of unmanned vehicles, such as drones used in monitoring wildfires. By integrating the principles inspired by fruit flies’ resiliency, these vehicles can operate more effectively in challenging and dynamic environments.