When awestruck onlookers introduced America’s most popular comic book hero with the words: “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman!”, no one had heard of drones.
But drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are now being used in military operations by an estimated 50 countries worldwide, as well as globally for civilian surveillance and information-gathering.
Since drones have become widely used, 21st century innovators have been working hard to refine them, make them more versatile and more adaptable to weather conditions, and to find ways to power them more efficiently (without the use of kryptonite, of course!).
One such innovator is RMIT’s Dr Sridhar Ravi, who is building on research undertaken at Harvard University to establish an Animal Flight Lab.
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But drones are only one possible application of the work on which Ravi is embarking. His interest in biomechanical engineering (the intersection of biology and mechanical engineering) blossomed after completing his doctorate in engineering at RMIT.
At Harvard, he worked in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, applying his engineering skills to examine how natural systems and organisms evolve and operate, and how some of their features can be applied to man-made systems.
Experiments at Harvard focused on the flight of the bumble bee, as well as on birds such as hummingbirds.
“With bumble bees, we were startled at how well they were able to fly because we were posing quite difficult challenges to them (such as placing them in a wind tunnel with some turbulent and some smooth wind patterns),” Ravi explains.
“But they seemed to have no trouble maintaining their flight path in a windy environment and to have devised a number of strategies, such as a rolling motion, to control their flight.”
Ravi’s team in the RMIT lab will explore sensory motor control as well as flight. “We are asking: How is an insect brain, which has only a few thousand neurons, able to process this complex world around them?” Ravi says.
“If we get insight into how such a small neuro infrastructure is able to solve these complex problems, we can at some point potentially apply these principles to tiny computing devices and high-powered micro computing systems.”
The team has already welcomed a couple of beehives to RMIT’s Bundoora campus and Ravi is looking forward to future experiments, based within the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering.
“The environment that bees usually forage in is incredibly complex: there are obstacles everywhere,” he says.
“But current drones are incapable of navigating cluttered environments. They can fly a few hundred feet above the ground with no obstacles in their way and they can fly straight, but that’s it.
“So a simple experiment is trying to build artificial obstacle courses or mazes to see what parameters the bees depend on, such as visual patterning.”
Ravi says that in one recent experiment, it was discovered that when a bird lands, it is looking at a black and white palette and working on the contrast. Colour is not a factor.
“So, if you’re making a drone to mimic that, you don’t have to build in information on colour and you are reducing the infrastructure the drone needs,” he says.
Story: Rachel Kleinman
Photo: Carla Gottgens
This story was first published in RMIT's Making Connections magazine.