Air Force Funds SEAS Robotic Research

Imagine walking into the engineering labs at 60 Oxford St. and having a fly buzz around your head. After swatting it away, instead of a splat on the wall, you discover a tiny mechanical creation of Robert J. Wood, an assistant professor of electrical engineering.

Two weeks ago, Wood was awarded a grant from the Air Force’s Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Research Program for work on the aero-elasticity of flapping wings of micro aero vehicles (MAVs).

The Air Force program, which provides around $100,000 each year for a three-year period, hopes to foster creative basic research in science and engineering and enhance early career development, according to Spencer T. Wu, the program’s manager.

“We hope to increase opportunities for young investigators to recognize the Air Force’s mission and the related challenges in science and engineering,” Wu said.

One of the primary projects of Wood’s lab is to create a flying robotic insect.

“We want to try to answer some fundamental questions that exist in both biology and engineering pertaining to organisms and devices that flap their wings for propulsion,” Wood said.

Wood is approaching this question by manufacturing the robotic fly at the scale of an actual fly. His lab uses parts, including transmission systems and air foils, which have direct biological analogies that are “not accidental”.

His lab recently constructed all the individual components of the fly which performed similarly to those of an actual insect.

Wood is now developing an apparatus that would simultaneously measure the forces, as well as the aero-elastic properties, generated by the motion of the robotic fly.

By running the tests with different types of wings and different trajectories, Wood hopes to correlate the movements and forces with the design space.

“Our goals are to uncover patterns in the design space which lead to a particular performance and come up with simplified models of the fluid mechanics interactions, and to come up with design rules,” Wood said.

Wood’s research is of interest to the Air Force as well as other Department of Defense agencies because an understanding of aeroelasticity could help the design of future MAVs, according to Wu.

“We are fortunate to have an increasing number of highly creative junior faculty like Rob Wood,” said Frans A. Spaepen, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“I think this highlights the great vibrancy of our school and our commitment to bringing in and mentoring the next generation of leaders in engineering and applied sciences,” Spaepen said.

—Crimson staff writer Alissa D’Gama can be reached at adgama@fas.harvard.edu.