For an engineer inspired by nature, bats are a gold mine, with their acrobatic maneuverability and preternaturally precise sonar systems. China, with its large and diverse bat populations, is an ideal place to study them.

At the at the Shandong University – Virginia Tech International Laboratory in Shandong, China, researchers work on unraveling the intricacies of bats’ remarkable sensing and flight skills.

Five more Virginia Tech students will get the chance to be a part of that work this summer, thanks to a new project funded by the National Science Foundation through its International Research Experiences for Students program. The program helps develop globally-engaged scientists and engineers by giving U.S. students the opportunity to work internationally on ongoing research.

Three graduate and two undergraduate researchers will spend ten weeks analyzing native bats’ flight mechanics, biosonar, and neural control mechanisms.

Leading the project are Rolf Mueller, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Virginia Tech Center for Bioinspired Science and Technology, and Vinod Lohani, a professor of engineering education and the faculty director for education and global initiatives at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. Faculty teams spanning six departments will advise the students.

Bats’ flexible, jointed wings give them much greater maneuverability than any flying robot, and their compact biosonar systems — just two ears and, sometimes, a nose —deliver far more detailed information about their surroundings than manmade systems hundreds of times larger.

The combination enables them to navigate complex natural environments, maneuvering deftly in thick forests and traveling in dense swarms without colliding. Insectivorous bats, which Mueller studies, can target and snatch small flying insects in the dark, against a backdrop of brush and vegetation.

Understanding the bats’ flight mechanics and sonar systems, and the neural control networks that coordinate them, could help engineers design more maneuverable drones and more accurate sonar. Comparing these biological systems in different bat species can be instructive — one reason to do these studies in China, where more than 130 species have been documented.

“The biodiversity is there, that’s why we go to China,” said Matthew Bender, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in Mueller’s lab who has spent the last three years studying bat flight mechanics in Shandong. “Without the bats, the research really doesn’t happen.” 

Bats in flight tunnel

shandong bats
At the Shandong University - Virginia Tech International Laboratory, two bats fly through an array of cameras that captures their wing movements, helping researchers understand their flight. Photo courtesy of Rolf Mueller.

The Shandong University – Virginia Tech International Laboratory, which Mueller founded in 2010, takes advantage of nearby bat populations to provide a site for collaborative research between the two universities and their collaborators. It also functions as a platform for student and faculty exchange.  

The students in the new IRES program will work on interdisciplinary research projects that analyze the engineering principles that underlie bats’ sophisticated sensing, locomotion, and navigation: How to the bats coordinate their sonar pulses with flight? What wing movements help them snatch prey in midair or drink while in flight? How do tiny adjustments of intricately sculpted ears and noseleaves modulate sonar emission and reception? And how do all these systems work together to make the bats the master of their natural habitats?

To learn more about the ecological and behavioral context of the bats’ adaptations, the IRES students will work alongside bat field biologists from Northeast Normal University in Manchuria.

Engineering education faculty will analyze the students’ research and learning experiences to evaluate the program’s effectiveness.

The new grant builds on a fellowship program that has been supported by the College of Engineering and the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. Five graduate students, including Bender, have also won individual fellowships through the National Science Foundation’s East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes program.

These international research experiences offer students the opportunity to communicate and collaborate across cultures, developing skills that will be increasingly valuable in a globalized world.

Bender, who plans to launch his own company when he graduates later this year, said that working in China has prepared him for a career as an entrepreneurial engineer.

“If I start a tech company that works with consumer electronic devices, I’ll probably go to China to do business,” he said. “And knowing my way around Beijing, knowing Shanghai a little bit, knowing a little bit of Chinese — all that helps.”

According to Bender, any student who gets the opportunity to do research internationally would benefit from the experience.

“Everybody should do it,” he said.

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