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Flapping Wings and a Sense of Smell: How Insects Can Inform Tomorrow’s Robotics

Chengyu Li, PhD
Chengyu Li, PhD

How do fruit flies, butterflies, and hawkmoths balance a sense of smell with aerodynamics to navigate their surroundings? And what can we learn from them that can be applied to unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles? Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Chengyu Li, PhD—who joined Villanova’s faculty in fall 2018—is using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to find answers to those questions.

As director of the College’s Flow Simulation & Flow Physics Lab, Dr. Li uses CFD simulations to reconstruct the flow field around flying insects based on high speed video images. He explains: “Because they are so tiny, it is very challenging to use any kind of experimental devices to measure insects’ motion. But through simulation, we can see how the flapping of their wings generates lift force and disrupts the flow field in the right way, which allows them to fly.”

A Junior Faculty Enhancement Award from Oak Ridge Associated Universities (OARU) will allow Dr. Li to advance this research by also studying the role of the insects’ wings in heightening their olfactory senses. He notes, “It is the combination of the two that enables them to detect local chemical cues from which to navigate, even at great distances from their target.” This is also where the potential lies for unmanned vehicle technology. “Our drones and underwater robots and vehicles rely on GPS to plan their flight or swimming path, which means if you lose the signal, they have no direction at all,” Dr. Li says. The question that he intends to answer is what can natural flyers teach us that we can transfer to future man-made designs?