Modern navigation of miniature unmanned aerial vehicles strongly relies on global positioning systems. In GPS-denied environments, however, man-made flying robotics risk losing the capability to locate unseen targets during important surveillance and detection missions including search in natural disasters, chemical leak monitoring, and drug trafficking detection. Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Dr. Chengyu Li has found a promising potential solution in nature—specifically, in insects’ ability to detect and locate distant targets by tracking odor plumes in complex flow environments. His research on “Odor-Guided Flapping Flight: Novel Fluid Dynamic Mechanisms of Insect Navigation” has been awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER grant worth $500,000.
“Odor-guided flapping flight is key to an insect’s survival,” says Dr. Li. He explains that during odor-guided navigation, flapping wings not only serve as propulsors for generating lift and maneuvering, but also actively draw odor plumes to the antennae via wing-induced flow. This helps enhance olfactory detection, mimicking “sniffing” in mammals. He adds, "The flow physics underlying this odor-tracking behavior is still unclear due to insects’ small wing size, fast flapping motion, and the unpredictability of their flying trajectory.” Using the resources of his Flow Simulation and Flow Physics Lab, Dr. Li aims to establish a physics-driven understanding of the odor-tracking flapping flight in nature and to unravel how insects balance aerodynamic performance with olfactory sensitivity. More specifically, his research will test the hypothesis that the enhancement of the olfactory sensitivity during navigation can be achieved by regulating the odorant transport in unsteady wing-induced flow through modulating flapping locomotion. Dr. Li summarizes, “The findings will advance the development of design principles for bio-inspired flying robots with superior aerodynamic performance and olfactory sensitivity.”
A Villanova University faculty member since 2018, Dr. Li is the College of Engineering’s third CAREER awardee and the first in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Chemical and Biological Engineering’s Dr. Jacob Elmer was the College’s first recipient in 2017. A year later, Dr. Wenqing Xu, Civil and Environmental Engineering, became the first female professor in the College to be awarded the grant.
The CAREER grant is the NSF’s most prestigious award in support of the early career-development activities of those teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization. Such activities are expected to build a firm foundation for a lifetime of integrated contributions to research and education.