School of Physics uses moths and origami structures for innovative defense research


Newswise – Georgia Tech has received two Department of Defense (DoD) orders 2022 Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) awards. almost $14 million in total. The highly competitive government program supports interdisciplinary investigative teams that develop innovative solutions in DoD areas of interest. That year, the DoD awarded $195 million to 28 research teams across the country.

Georgia Tech’s MURIs are both primarily located within the School of Physics. First, Simon Sponberg, a Dunn family associate professor of physics and life sciences, leads a team discovering how animals strategically use perception and cognition to make decisions in complex environments. The project, Fast, lexicographic agile perception integrates decision and control in a spike-resolved sensorimotor program (FLAP), specifically addresses the core DoD topic of understanding the integration of neural systems for competent autonomy in decision-making and control.

“We have all these great, sophisticated algorithms to process big data, but an animal doesn’t have time to process a million samples of its environment and then figure out what a predator is,” Sponberg said.

Studying moths for their agile, sophisticated flight and complex perceptual abilities, the team will record electrical activity in the brain to determine how the moth makes decisions and use natural language processing techniques to see how a moth made up of sensory cues and movements derives meanings. The goal is to develop an information processing framework that enables fast and flexible decision making that could facilitate the next generation of autonomous bio-inspired systems and better integrate living systems with engineered technologies

The interdisciplinary nature of the team makes complex research possible. Half of the team consists of experimenters: Sponberg specializes in sensors that are connected to engine systems with precisely timed signals; Jeff Riffell, a professor at the University of Washington, studies how the nervous system processes sensory signals to control behavior; and as a vision neuroscientist at Florida International University, Jamie Theobald determines how animals analyze complex environments. The other half of the team will build the framework: Duke Professor Vahid Tarokh models complex datasets, Georgia Tech School of Mathematics assistant professor Hannah Choi focuses on neural networks, and Cornell professor Silvia Ferrari ties it all together as a control theorist who embeds control in neural structures.

“MURIs were originally training grants for the Department of Defense to train the next generation of scientists who would make progress,” Sponberg said. “This funding will allow us to have postdocs and PhD students from all six labs and disciplines work closely together and create a community.”

For the second MURI, Programming of multistable origami and kirigami structures via topological design, Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech Zeb Rocklin is part of a team exploring a new class of origami and kirigami-inspired flexible, lightweight structures capable of shifting between many stable shapes to perform different tasks or adapt to changing environmental conditions. These structures could be used in a range of applications, from multifunctional robots and collapsible antennas to quickly assembled bridges and temporary structures and force protection elements such as origami-inspired bulletproof shields.

The team brings together experts in the fields of mathematics, physics, materials science, mechanics, robotics, numerical modeling and computation, including Harvard University Professors Katie Beoldi, Jennifer Lewis, L. Mahadevan and Robert Wood, and Associate Professor Eleni Katifori from the University of Pennsylvania

Researchers will develop mathematical models to characterize and design the complex mechanical behavior of multistable origami and kirigami structures, new multi-scale manufacturing processes that efficiently integrate actuation and sensing, and experimental test benches that serve as platforms for evaluation and optimization design concepts.

“This project benefits from Georgia Tech’s ability to forge tight, powerful connections between the development of advanced technologies and the development of universal, mathematically rigorous physical theories,” Rocklin said. Feel a piece of origami and use robotics and multifunctional 3D printing to create to create complex, flexible and robust dynamic structures that can do things no one has seen before.”


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