Each week, staff writer Paul Wood chats with a different high-tech innovator. This week, meet AIMY WISSA, an assistant professor in the University of Illinois Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering who uses biological concepts to create a wold where robots can fly.
What interests you the most right now?
I have always been interested in understanding biological solutions to advance that state of the art in engineering. While not optimized for a single purpose, nature has come up with clever solutions to many problems that we currently face in engineering. Of particular interest to me is the problem of limited agility and maneuverability in current unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Birds that fly in similar conditions as UAVs have evolved multiple systems to extend their flight efficiency for several flight conditions and for different tasks.
What made you interested in the intersection of engineering and biology? You seem to have boundless creativity.
I have always been interested in aerodynamics and structural design. During the first couple of months of my graduate school, my adviser, at the time, handed me a paper about dragonflies’ wings. Upon reading the paper, I realized that in insect and bird flight, nature excels at designing structures for both aerodynamic efficiency and structural integrity. Right away, I saw biology as inspiration for designing multifunctional engineering structures.
You and a collaborator have sent students out into nature to observe biological organisms and their functions and have assigned case studies from experts in biology and engineering. What are some of the things they learned?
In the spring of 2017, I collaborated with a colleague from the Department of Entomology, Dr. Marianne Alleyne, and we started a new course about Bio-inspired Design. In this course, students form teams of biologists and engineers and work side-by-side to solve an engineering problem of their choice based on a solution found in nature. In order to make students realize that inspiration from nature can happen anywhere and at any time, we give students a “Go TO Nature” assignment, where we ask them to step outside and make three observations about things in nature (e.g., fish use their fins to swim). For each of these observations, students are asked to research the function and mechanism that enables this observation and propose an engineering problem that can be solved using this observation. Some the interesting things students learned last spring were the hierarchy and organization structures of leaves and seedpods as well as flight of turkey vultures and swarming behavior in starlings.
What are the implications of this for designing prototypes and engineering things like drones?
Students in the bioinspired design course, as well as graduate students in my research lab use biological observation and existing biological literature to understand the function of certain biological structures and the mechanisms that enables these functions. Upon understanding the enabling principles in biology, students can now decide which aspects to adopt and which aspects to abandon when they are creating their engineering prototypes. For example, students may choose to adopt the shape and compliance of feathers when designing an adaptive and deployable device for UAVs, but they do not necessarily need to mimic the color or patterning of the feathers, as these features may be unrelated to flight efficiency.
You were a leader of a University of Illinois click beetle robotics team. Has an understanding of their motion helped develop self-righting robots? I can imagine this would be extremely important in remote locations such as underseas or on another planet.
Definitely. Even though the project has only been underway for less than a year, we have learned a lot about click beetles jumping dynamics and kinematics and it is already changing our prospective about robotics design. Currently robots are designed to be stable and to avoid falls at all cost, but as more robots are deployed in unknown environments, they will need to mitigate falls rather than avoid them. The self-righting behavior of click beetles are showing us possible energy management and mechanical power amplification strategies that enable such paradigm shift in robotics. We are learning about how multi-material systems can be used to store and release energy efficiently and that mechanical latching can be used to ensure efficient energy transfer between the actuation system (energy input) and the elastic energy storage elements (energy output). Such approach to mechanical power amplification has multiple applications in robotics for planetary explorations and locomotion on rough terrains, in health for medicine dispensing, and in agriculture for crop surveying. This work was published in conference proceedings and has won 2nd place in an international biomimetics competition last summer.
Another student-professor team looked at origami and crawling robots. How do you get these ideas?
This idea was initiated by a collaborator on the project, Professor Sameh Tawfick. Professor Tawfick has previously worked on designing and analyzing origami towers. Upon observing the origami tower and the way it can be actuated radially to expand and contract in the longitudinal direction, I envisioned that this could be used as a building block for a crawling robot. Upon further investigation, we realized that such design could be improved by getting inspiration from earthworms. Earthworms use radial and longitudinal muscles as well as multiple body segments to move in and out of confined spaces. We used this concept of mesmerism to design a modular and compliant crawling robot that uses origami towers as building blocks. This work was published in multiple conference proceedings and peer-reviewed journal papers. We are now expanding the work to include autonomous control and for that, we are collaborating with Professor Andrew Alleyne.
Do you have any patents?
We currently have a provisional patent for a device based on one of our projects. The project focus on leading edge devices for aerial vehicles based on birds’ feather structures.
TECH TIDBITS … from AIMY WISSA
What social media do you use, if any? Twitter: @awissa86
On Facebook I follow: Friends and family.
Do you have any wearables? None, not even a wearable robot. Wearable wings would be good if they existed.
Do you have a hero? A hero institution, The Other Lab, in San Francisco, that is very innovative.