Press Release: Collaborative effort seeks the secrets of small fliers

I wrote this press release as an example for my portfolio while taking Dr. Illman’s science writing course. View or download as PDF for proper press release formatting.

Collaborative effort seeks the secrets of small fliers
US Air Force simulated image of flying robot spies.
Dr. Morgansen’s work could contribute to the development of micro air vehicles liek these, shown in a US Air Force computer simulation.

SEATTLE, WA, September 28, 2010 – Imagine a small unmanned aircraft that can navigate a forest, a building, or a pile of rubble by itself – one that can evaluate sensory information and respond without a pilot or controller’s instructions. We might soon employ such aircraft for reconnaissance or search and rescue missions thanks to some of nature’s smaller, humbler fliers.

The Office of Naval Research announced a nearly five million dollar grant today, awarded to a collaborative team headed by Dr. Kristi Morgansen of the University of Washington’s Aeronautics and Astronautics department. The grant will fund research into what University of Washington Biology department collaborator Jon Dyhr calls “biologically inspired principles for flight control” that can be applied to engineer better flight control systems for small unmanned aircraft.

By studying a variety of less majestic flying animals, including hawk moths and bats, the team plans to ferret out the rules of flying in close quarters. These rules differ from the rules of soaring (most airplanes mimic the flying strategies of soaring birds). “The idea,” explains Dyhr, “is that animals are really good at what they do and for a lot of tasks they perform orders of magnitude better than any engineered system.”

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The collaborative team includes biologists and engineers from the University of Washington, the University of Maryland, Boston University, the College of Charleston, and the University of North Carolina.  Together they study not just how small fliers create lift with their wings, but how they move, stop, hover, and recover from bumps in the road. To hover at a flower or recover from a gust of wind, animals need to process information from their antennae, eyes, wings, and other sensory organs.

The team wants to understand fast reflexive behavior, such as how flying animals recover from getting blown off course suddenly, and planned behaviors such as navigating to a planned route.  But their goal isn’t to make an electronic flying moth or bat, which would automatically limit the range of what the device would be capable of. They want to understand the principles of moth- and bat-like flight and then apply those principles to a broad range of engineered devices.

The Office of Naval Research expects the research to help develop small, highly maneuverable unmanned aircraft that could navigate a dense forest or the rubble of a collapsed building. The ability to react without waiting for a pilot’s instructions could also help prevent losses of existing unmanned aircraft such as Predator drones. The half-second delay between the pilots and the drones makes them prone to crashing during landing.

Eventually, unmanned aircraft will be able to respond to visual data that they receive and process in combination with other sensory information. This ability is based on visual control algorithms unique to the research of this special collaborative effort and could spawn a new class of unmanned aircraft.

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