A building collapses and victims are stuck beneath rubble. A rescue team moves debris as quickly as possible but struggles to find people in the chaos. The team launches a robot that can fly through the narrow spaces and nimbly maneuver through the rubble. With the robot’s help, it locates people faster.
A scenario like this might now be possible. Funded by the National Science Foundation and the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research, a group of researchers at Brown, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the California Institute of Technology has created a prototype of a robot based on a bat that can fly in tight spaces and change direction quickly.
Bats, known for their unique flying abilities, have significant control over their wings and the ability to perform acrobatic maneuvers. They are also the only mammals that can sustain prolonged flight — another quality that makes them an ideal model, said Professor of Engineering Kenneth Breuer ’82 P’14 P’16.
The team at Brown studied how real bats move and created a model for the robot’s flight patterns, said Hamid Vejdani GS. Using a wind tunnel and a camera-rigged room, they were able to analyze how bats fly under perfect conditions and in varying wind speeds.
David Boerma GS helped train bats to land in specific spots within the team’s laboratory, though it was no easy task. “It’s just as perplexing as it sounds,” Boerma said. Using food rewards and a number of different bats, the team was able to encourage movements relevant to the research.
From the data and analysis put together by the team at Brown, roboticists at Illinois and the CalTech built a robot that flies like a bat. The robot can be used for search and rescue missions, inspections and other expeditions that take place in confined spaces, Breuer said. “It’s really encouraging to see how pure biological interests can translate into solutions to problems that people actually care about,” Boerma said.
Building robots based on biological models is a relatively new technique — some of the first prototypes of such robots used basic models of movements starting as early as the 1970s, said Kaushik Jayaram, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard. Known as bio-inspired robotics, this area of study has become increasingly popular, he added.
Bio-inspired robotics encourages collaboration between different fields to draw upon multiple sources of knowledge and frames of thought. “Engineers and biologists working together to answer common questions which both fields are interested in can definitely move us further ahead than if these groups work individually,” Jayaram said.
In the future, the team hopes to explore how bats land and react to blasts of wind, Breuer said. Additionally, they aim to test the robot in Brown’s wind tunnel and make improvements to its design.