Research from NIFTI PI Sawyer Fuller’s lab was featured on Youtube by the science and discovery video creator Seeker. The video focuses on the Fuller lab’s work on autonomous insect-sized robots which can detect obstacles and targets and self-navigate in the air and in the water.
The team, working from the the Autonomous Insect Robotics Laboratory, or AIR lab at the UW, has been designing and building a new type of autonomous robots modeled after insects. This focus on bio-mimicry includes pulling inspiration from natural solutions. Insects can serve as natural models for investigations such as determining optimum wing shape for aerodynamics, or looking to mimic the mechanical movement of muscles.
As part of the optimization of small robots, researchers are looking to develop new ways to power their propulsion systems. A newer way that is still in development is ion propulsion, which can provide tiny pushes based on solar power. Atmospheric ion propulsion involves air molecules being bombarded with electrons, causing charged ions to move towards a negatively charged metal comb. As the charged ions move towards the comb, they collide with other molecules, which provides a thrust upwards. This allows for a small scale propulsion system, with the only power needed to produce the ions.
Currently the resulting robot produces between collaborating Fuller and Novosselov labs, has four ion thrusters that are controllable separately, and a tethered power line for the entire robot. An innovation allowing for quick and more efficient development has been laser cutting the electrode and collector in a few minutes. This allows for researchers to test different shapes of electrodes and different materials.
NIFTI PI Sarah Bergbrieter, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon, was named to InStyle’s” 50 bad-ass women” list” (see No. 17 in the list). This list spotlights women from various fields (science, social justice, entertainment, and others) who have made inspiring contributions. InStyle named Dr. Bergbrieter alongside other successful women including Rihanna, Marie Kondo, Alex Morgan, Greta Thunberg, and Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt.
Dr. Bergbrieter’s work includes researching micro-robotics. Micro-robots work in many different fields, all allowing for impact where humans have trouble going. In medical fields, micro-robots can conduct microsurgery, where they do tiny tasks, such as repair blood vessels and nerves. These robots, at sub-millimeter sizes, can also help prevent catastrophic failures by inspecting places that are inaccessible for humans. Their size allows for inspectors to investigate under bridges, within pipes, and inside jet engines, finding faults before failures. Researchers are also investigating how these robots can aid in search-and-rescue, accessing tight spaces and dangerous conditions.
NIFTI PI Jeff Riffell recently published a paper in Current Biology: “Visual-Olfactory Integration in the Human Disease Vector Mosquito Aedes aegypti“. The paper focuses on mosquito’s integration of various sensory cues to find and track their hosts.
As mosquitoes buzz around searching for their next target, they receive a multitude of signals from the environment. These signals include scents, sights, and environmental heats, which the mosquito must processes in order to locate the most viable target. The Riffell lab worked to determine the interaction between two of the previously unconnected senses, sight and smell.
To track the wing movements during flight, researchers placed mosquitoes in an enclosed space with an optical sensor. Researchers then mimicked human breath and movement with triggered puffs of CO2 infused air and a moving bar. The mosquitoes moved to both the air and the motion, but more dramatically to the motion after receiving a CO2 puff. This experiment was repeated with mosquitoes whose central nervous system cells glowed when firing. Neural data showed both the puff of CO2 and the motion triggered the cells. Stimulus order changed the scale of the reaction, as only bar motion after the CO2 puff caused an increase in cell firing. As Dr. Riffell states, “Smell triggers vision, but vision does not trigger the sense of smell.”
Dr. Riffell hopes scientists can gain a better understanding of how mosquitos feed, and develop new methods of bite prevention. Identifying how mosquitoes track their hosts may lead to the ideal prevention strategy.
Steve Brunton, a NIFTI PI, received the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The United States Government bestows the PECASE as the highest honor to “scientists and engineers show exceptional promise for leadership”. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy receives and reviews recommendations from governmental agencies who support the scientist’s work. Nine agencies have the ability to offer recommendations, including the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense.
Dr. Brunton is a mechanical engineer whose research focuses on data-driven modeling and control of complex systems, such as studying how turbulent fluids behave. Brunton was nominated for his work on using machine learning to develop efficient models that accurately describe the complexities of fluid mechanics. These models will then be used in part for designing better aircraft and more efficient energy systems.
UWIN graduate fellow Thomas Mohren and UWIN faculty Bing Brunton, Steve Brunton, and Tom Daniel published a paper in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) on how flying insects can detect changes in their flight patterns using only a few complex sensors. In order to navigate quickly in complex situations, insects require rapid feedback from the multitude of sensors found on their wings, antennae, and other body parts. The paper, titled “Neural-inspired sensors enable sparse, efficient classification of spatiotemporal data,” describes how insects use both the location of the sensors and the temporal history of the wing motions to sense body rotations.
The researchers use computer models to investigate how insect sensors help detect disturbances. They found a few vital pieces in the insects intake and processing mechanisms. The temporal filter, which modifies environmental inputs with relation to the history of the wings, alongside a non-linear transformation of the received signal at every sensor was crucial for the detection of rotations. These two input modifications, as well as the precise layout of sensors across the wing made it so only a few sensors were required for this detection. The group of researchers believe the principle of neural encoding and sparse placement of sensors hold promise for man-made system. they are now working to implement biologically inspired sensors into robotic platforms.
Bing Brunton, a Washington Research Foundation Innovation Assistant Professor and NIFTI faculty member in Neuroengineering, was featured in a recent College of Arts and Sciences newsletter. The article, titled “What Insects can Teach us about Data,” was published in March of 2019.
Brunton researches the ability of flying insects to make tiny but critical adjustments with small amounts of data. She is specifically working to develop a sparse sensor algorithm to mimic sensors on the wings of a hawk moth. These tiny mechanoreceptor neurons on the moth wings allow the moth to track environmental impacts such as wind and adjust the wings accordingly. By understanding how the these neurons are able to take in data, process it, and produce micro-adjustments in real time, Brunton hopes to determine how to mimic this process artificially.
The focus of this research is on the ability of flying animals to acquire information about the environment and make tiny adjustments with small amounts of data. The researchers look to mimic this ability in algorithms and robotics. Many flying animals have strict constraints on size, weight, and computing power, but can still make precise adjustments with large amounts of environmental data. Brunton is looking to use inspiration from flying animals to work on the flying ability in tiny robots by reducing the amount of data imputed through use of specialized hardware alongside sparse neuronal computations. By investigating the flight constraints and the neural response, the project strives to have broad impacts in designing efficient sensor networks, performing adaptive control of complex systems, and achieving agile flight sensing and control.
NIFTI graduate student Melanie Anderson has been awarded a 2018 National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship (NDSEG). Melanie is a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Washington in the lab of Sawyer Fuller. The NDSEG award recognizes “individuals who have demonstrated the ability and special aptitude for advanced training in science and engineering” with an emphasis in “science and engineering disciplines of military importance.”
Melanie works on developing insect sized robots in the Fuller Lab with a goal to “create tiny robots capable of sensing and performing in the world without a human operator” while focusing on odor-based aerial localization. In May of 2018, the Fuller lab succeeded in creating the world’s lightest flying robot and currently working on refining the miniature robots while refining their olfactory sensors for uses such as detecting methane leaks.
Currently, insect-sized flying machines need to be tethered in order to deliver the power required for flight (check out Fuller’s “RoboBee“). In order to circumvent this issue, RoboFly is powered by a laser beam using a photovoltaic cell. An on-board circuit boosts the seven volts generated by the cell to the 240 necessary to power the wings. The circuit also contains a microcontroller which controls the movement of the wings. “The microcontroller acts like a real fly’s brain telling wing muscles when to fire,” according to Vikram Iyer.
In the future, autonomous roboinsects could be used to complete tasks such as surveying crop growth or detecting gas leaks. “I’d really like to make one that finds methane leaks,” says Fuller. “You could buy a suitcase full of them, open it up, and they would fly around your building looking for plumes of gas coming out of leaky pipes. If these robots can make it easy to find leaks, they will be much more likely to be patched up, which will reduce greenhouse emissions. This is inspired by real flies, which are really good at flying around looking for smelly things. So we think this is a good application for our RoboFly.”
At the moment, RoboFly is only capable of taking off and landing, as there is no way for the laser beam to track the robot’s movement; but the team hopes to soon be able to steer the laser and allow the machine to hover and fly. Shyam Gollakota says that future versions could use tiny batteries or harvest energy from radio frequency signals. That way, their power source can be modified for specific tasks.