Scheme: University Research Fellowship
Organisation: University of Oxford
Dates: Oct 2004-Sep 2009
Summary: My research deals with the dynamics and control of animal flight. This means that I am interested in answering questions about how animals sense, process, and act upon information about their motion through the environment. I am particularly interested in understanding how evolution by natural selection has shaped the control systems of flying animals and how specifically it has tuned them to match the physics of flight. My team uses an array of different experimental techniques to tackle this problem. One research track uses a virtual reality flight simulator into which we place insects and measure the forces they produce in response to movements of a simulated 3D environment. Another research track uses multiple high-speed digital video cameras and powerful infra-red laser illumination to measure how the wings of insects change shape and trajectory during flight manoeuvres in a virtual-reality flight arena. A third research track uses onboard instrumentation and onboard video cameras carried by a trained Steppe Eagle to measure and analyse how the wings and tail are used to control flight manoeuvres. Besides shedding important new light on the control systems of the animals themselves, this research is also providing inspiration for new ways of configuring control systems in smaller flying vehicles. Miniaturizing an aircraft takes engineering into a new and relatively unexplored domain, and the strict constraints that this imposes upon payload mean that it is not possible simply to scale down the control system of a large aircraft. Rather, a radical rethinking of design is required, and it is just this kind of rethink that is now being inspired by our increasing understanding of the control systems of birds and insects.