Challenging the Fundamentals of Physics

Imagine a vehicle small enough to fly through cracks in concrete while searching for earthquake victims or exploring radioactivity-contaminated buildings. In an effort to create highly maneuverable micro air vehicles (MAVs) that can perform such feats, research scientists have been developing and testing a myriad of MAV prototypes. But surprisingly, progress has been slow as researchers have discovered that many developments in aerodynamics over past decades cannot be applied at the micro level. Haibo Dong, UVA Aerospace Engineer and Associate Professor, and his team have taken on the exciting challenge of closing this knowledge gap. “What we know about aerodynamics simply isn’t working when we try to design small robotic air vehicles for this type of efficiency, maneuverability, and accuracy. Today’s aerospace engineers will need to examine the fundamental physics and science behind flying and swimming in order to make progress,” says Dong.

Dong’s Flow Simulation Research Lab is challenging current tenets of aerodynamics by studying elite natural flyers of the world, including hummingbirds and dragonflies. These agile flyers are small and out-maneuver even their closest insect relatives—making them the perfect inspiration for MAVs. Using a unique approach that includes high-speed photography, 3D animation, kinematics, fluid dynamics, high speed computing, and computational modeling, the lab’s bio-inspired research has already overcome some of the barriers to progress. Members of the lab have won several awards for breakthrough research, including most recently the American Physical Society – Division of Fluid Dynamics Gallery of Flow Motion Best Video Award, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Foundation Abe M. Zarem Award for Distinguished Achievement—Aeronautics, and the AIAA Foundation Abe M. Zarem Educator Award. Other universities that competed for these awards include Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, and MIT.