Virginia Tech researchers have teamed up with international partners to create a state-of-the-art image capture tunnel that will provide a new level of insight in the field of biomotion. Combining the efforts of faculty and student teams, their project has yielded more than $800,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation to continue the work.

The effort is led by mechanical engineering Professor Rolf Mueller, who has been studying the biosonar and motion behaviors of bats for more than two decades. While working in partnership with other schools around the world to observe a wide array of species, he has grown increasingly curious about the role that bat flight plays in enabling the animal’s autonomous capabilities. Given that bats multitask – balancing drinking, catching insects, and other actions – while flying, using high-speed cameras to capture all of these motions happening simultaneously could enable a deeper understanding of how the animals can accomplish so many difficult tasks at the same time.

“We’re looking for the ‘secret sauce’ behind the success of bats,” said Mueller. “Our interest is particularly in their ability to navigate through dense rainforests in darkness.”

An expert on bat populations around the world, Mueller knew of an ideal location to pursue further study of this question. The Brunei region of Borneo is a small area geographically, but has an extremely large and diverse population of bats. Mueller’s team is particularly in search of bats capable of exceptional flight maneuvering — as Mueller calls them, the “elite” species of bats — and many species living in Brunei offer the possibility of a rich resource of data.

“There are 66 species of bat known to be in Brunei, and Brunei is about the size of Montgomery County,” Mueller said. “There are bats with wingspans from 16 centimeters up to 1.8 meters. They are exceptional.”

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Mueller found research allies at the University of Brunei and its Faculty of Integrated Technology (FIT) who committed to building a bat house near the university, also pledging $200,000 in funding to get the project started. Dean of FIT Liyanage Chandratilak De Silva, FIT Associate Dean Juliana Haji Zaini, and FIT faculty member Wahyu Caesarendra played critical roles, as did Ulmar Grafe, field ecologist and director of the university’s Natural History Museum.

In planning creation of the image-capture tunnel, the researchers first worked to determine the kind of structure to use and how to assemble the tunnel in a place where bats were already living. To that end, Mueller created a senior design project to activate the creativity and intellect of undergraduates, and several Virginia Tech students answered the call. Senior Christian Mergl took the lead, joined by fellow mechanical engineering majors Alec Joseph Maccaro, Anuj Roy, Wenkun Liu, Armani Tagle, Jason Brannick, Spencer Kirkham IV, and Kevin Byrnes.

The plan was to capitalize on the large bat population to create a captive group of diverse animals trained to fly through the tunnel on command, demonstrating their unique skill set. Mueller found partners in Brunei to assist with putting a research facility in place.

Once the student team finished their tunnel design plans, an additional student team convened to do the work of bringing together a functional camera array. Two of those students, undergraduates Sounak Chakrabarti and Hannah-Victoria Thielmanm, won an Honorable Mention Award for a presentation of the project at the 2020 Virginia Academy of Science Fall Undergraduate Research Meeting in November.

The final tunnel design is 8.6m long, 2.9 m wide, and 3.3m tall. Observations will be recorded on 50 synchronized high-speed video cameras with illumination from 40 camera lights and with 40 ultrasonic microphones.

Mueller’s plan is to complete the integrated build, combining the tunnel design with the student-built array, and to ship the completed tunnel to Brunei. He aims to start making observations of “elite” bats soon.

“The collaborative research platform in Brunei will allow us to combine first-hand access to biodiversity with world-class experimental facilities,” said Mueller. “This will enable Virginia Tech researchers and their international collaborators to gain new insights for technology right from the source.”

- Written by Alex Parrish

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