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Eight faculty members connected to the A. James Clark School of Engineering are playing major roles in a new Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) Center of Excellence (COE) located at the University of Washington. The new Air Force Center of Excellence on Nature-Inspired Flight Technologies and Ideas (NIFTI) will conduct research into how animals move, navigate and use their senses, and create solutions for challenging engineering and technological problems related to building small, remotely operated aircraft.

The NIFTI center, one of six AFOSR COEs nationwide, is funded by the U.S. Air Force for up to $9 million over six years.

Two of the five NIFTI Leads are Clark School faculty, and a third is an affiliated faculty member. Associate Professor Pamela Abshire (ECE/ISR) will be working on tradeoffs between performance and resources in natural and engineered systems. Associate Professor Sean Humbert (AE) will research dynamics, control, and estimation theory with bio-inspired sensing and locomotion. Institute for Systems Research-affiliated Professor Cynthia Moss (Johns Hopkins University), will contribute to multisensory integration guiding behavioral decision processes and flight control.

In addition, five more Clark School faculty will be conducting research through the NIFTI center.

Associate Professor Sarah Bergbreiter (ME/ISR) will be engineering robotics down to sub-millimeter sizes. Associate Professor Timothy Horiuchi (ECE/ISR) will contribute neuromorphic analog VLSI design, sensorimotor neural computation, and robotics. Associate Professor Nuno Martins (ECE/ISR) will conduct research in control theory, estimation and information theory. ISR-affiliated Associate Professor Miao Yu (ME) will work on bio-inspired systems, sensors and actuators and micro/nano systems. Assistant Research Scientist Susanne Sterbing-D?Angelo (ISR), will research sensorimotor specializations for complex flight behaviors in animals.

The NIFTI director is Professor Tom Daniel, University of Washington. The fifth lead faculty member is Associate Professor Mark Willis, Case Western University.

About the NIFTI Center

The center will focus on three main research areas:

Locating objects. Researchers will look at how animals are able to find prey, a mate or food sources by encoding and processing information through their senses.

Navigating in complex environments. Insects and bats often fly in windy and crowded spaces, skillfully avoiding collisions. Scientists will study how their neurological and physiological systems function to allow them to move in these ways.

Navigating in sensory-deprived environments. Animals often fly in low light or nearly complete darkness, and in places where their ability to smell and hear might be compromised. Researchers will look more broadly at how animals use sensory information and how they make decisions about flight under different contexts.

"Our goal is to reverse-engineer how natural systems accomplish challenging tasks," said Daniel. "We are really trying to push hard on next-generation robotic systems and technologies that draw on how biology solves problems of control, complex maneuvering and manipulation."

Learning from the behavior of insects and animals could inspire more advanced micro-air vehicles, or small, flying robots. These could be used in difficult search-and-rescue missions, or to help detect explosives or mines when it would be too dangerous for humans to go on foot or in vehicles.

Center researchers will also develop micro-air vehicles for environmental monitoring. A quadrotor could, for example, navigate through a thick forest to the tree canopy and measure temperature, moisture and gases at different levels in the atmosphere. Or, small unmanned aircraft could be used to track ocean mammals such as whales for more consistent monitoring. Another specific project looks at how insect wings actually serve as both a way to fly and offers real-time measurement of where an insect is moving in space.

In addition to the US partners, NIFTI has partnerships with several universities abroad, including Imperial College, University of Bristol, University of Sussex and Oxford University in the U.K. and Lund University in Sweden.



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April 14, 2015


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