Last summer, a group of students and faculty members from Virginia Tech toted 10 kilos of high-speed camera equipment into Brunei. Why? To capture high-speed video footage of jungle bats flying through a tunnel in a lab at the University of Brunei Darussalam (UBD).

It sounds a bit crazy, but it is true: the team, which included Megan Bennett (EE ’20, Controls, Robotics, and Autonomy) and Connor Herron (EE ’20), were on a research trip to study the flight patterns of bats found only in the rainforests of  Brunei, a small oil-rich country on the island of Borneo in Southeastern Asia.

The project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Office of Naval Research (ONR), will use state-of-the-art imaging techniques to observe how bats use their biosonar systems during flight, and apply what they learn to drones and autonomous underwater vehicles. Rolf Mueller and Alexander Leonessa, professors of Mechanical Engineering, are leading the research. Leonessa participated in the trip to Brunei with funding from a Fulbright Fellowship.

“This is all part of the bioinspired engineering movement,” explains Herron. Bioinspired engineering learns from animal behavior and uses the inspiration gained to improve technology. 

Brunei is home to many species of bats that live in the country’s largely undisturbed rainforests. Bats that thrive in such habitats have particularly sophisticated biosonar and flight systems. “They navigate in dense jungle without running into anything,” explains Bennett,  “The fact that they survive in these environments is incredible.”

“They are like little fighter pilots,” adds Herron.

Understanding how they navigate through vines, branches, and other obstacles will help engineers design more agile, autonomous flying vehicles.

The team from Virginia Tech, which was collaborating with students and faculty members from Brunei, was able to go on an excursion deep into parts of the jungle that are off limits to all humans except a few researchers. 

“We were one of only a few sets of students allowed into this section of the jungle. It was a very special experience,” explains Bennett, who adds that just staying in their normal accommodations was incredible. “We were living in houses in the trees connected by wooden pathways. We’d just be sitting out playing cards, and a bat would zoom past.”

The team completed most of their design work before leaving for Brunei in a lab in Blacksburg under the direction of mechanical engineering Professors Rolf Mueller and Alexander Leonessa. 

“We worked really hard to make sure everything was in motion once we got there,” says Bennett. “A lot of what is available here is not easily available in Brunei. You have to learn to think on your feet in a country that doesn’t have aluminum readily available. We had angled steel that was way cheaper and way heavier.”

Ordering parts was often not an option either, as delivery could take months. “We were looking for cabling, and the closest type of cable we could find was three hours away, and in a different country,” explains Herron, “Getting the materials was really challenging.” Thus, why the team had to carry so much equipment with them into Brunei.

Bennett aided in the mechanical design and construction of the tunnel. Herron helped design the power supply for the cameras. Both worked with undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of engineering disciplines as well as two high school students from Blacksburg High School who joined the research team. “One of the best things about this project was how diverse the student area of expertise was,” says Herron. 

Drawing from their different backgrounds, they were able to complete construction of a 10 X 8 ft octagonal tunnel with over 20 synchronized cameras to capture uninterrupted recordings of the bats from every angle as they performed their intricate aerial acrobatics. More Virginia Tech researchers plan to travel to Brunei to continue the project, which will eventually integrate as many as 50 cameras into the tunnel. For the coming three years, this research will be supported by a new International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) grant funded by the NSF with 1 million dollars. The new grant will support the participation of 10 U.S. students every year.