Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Floris van Breugel has been awarded a $2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to adapt autonomous robots to be as resilient as fruit flies.
Resiliency in autonomous robotic systems is crucial, especially for robotics systems that are used in disaster response and surveillance, such as drones monitoring wildfires. Unfortunately, modern robots have difficulty responding to new environments or damage to their bodies that might occur during disaster response, van Breugel wrote in his grant application. In contrast, living systems are remarkably adept at quickly adjusting their behavior to new situations thanks to redundancy and flexibility within their sensory and muscle control systems.
Scientific discoveries in fruit flies have helped shed light on how these insects achieve resiliency in flight, according to van Breugel. His project will translate that emerging knowledge on insect neuroscience to develop more resilient robotic systems.
“This is a highly competitive award on a topic with tremendous potential impact, which also speaks of the research excellence of the investigator and Mechanical Engineering at UNR,” Petros Voulgaris, Mechanical Engineering department chair, said.
This research aligns with the College of Engineering’s Unmanned Vehicles research pillar.
Engineering + flies
The intersection of engineering and flies long has been an interest to van Breugel.
“As an undergrad I did research where my main project was designing a flying, hovering thing that was vaguely inspired by birds or insects,” he said. “Throughout that project, I realized that the hard part, which was more interesting to me, is once you have this mechanical thing that can fly, how do you control it? How do you make it go where you want it to go? If it gets broken, how do you adapt to that?”
Van Breugel says he is examining the way “animals can repurpose or reprogram their sensorimotor systems ‘on the fly’ to quickly compensate for internal damage or external perturbations.”
Working with van Breugel on the grant are experts in insect neuroscience, including Michael Dickinson, professor of bioengineering and aeronautics at the California Institute of Technology (and van Breugel’s Ph.D. advisor) as well as Yvette Fisher, assistant professor of neurobiology at U.C. Berkeley. Both have pioneered aspects of brain imaging in flies in regards to the discoveries and technology in the field that van Breugel is utilizing in this research project. Also on the project: Bing Bruton, associate professor of biology at the University of Washington, who brings her expertise in computational neuroscience.
The importance of flies in the realm of both engineering and neuroscience stems from the combination of their sophisticated behavior together with brains that are numerically simple enough that they can be studied in detail. This “goldilocks” combination, van Bruegel said, makes it feasible to distill properties of their neural processing into fundamental engineering principles that can be applied to robotics systems.
As part of the grant, research experiences will be offered to middle school, high school and undergraduate students to participate in both neuroscience and robotics research. Van Breugel and his team also will develop open-source content to help bring neuroscience fluency to engineering students. This aligns with the College of Engineering’s Student Engagement operational pillar.