Wissa to investigate flow control devices, interdisciplinary teams with new NSF grants

11/9/2020 Taylor Tucker

Written by Taylor Tucker

Aimy Wissa
Aimy Wissa

MechSE Assistant Professor Aimy Wissa was recently awarded two National Science Foundation grants for collaborative proposals, one focused on avian-inspired flow control and the other on cultivating and planning an interdisciplinary bioinspired design institute. 

Wissa’s research grant, for which she serves as co-Principal Investigator alongside Aerospace Engineering Assistant Professor Andres Goza, will study passive control flow devices inspired by bird feathers. The pair will investigate how to design lightweight distributed actuators that can manipulate flow separation, which is important for maintaining control during extreme flight maneuvers such as taking off and landing over short distances and flying in strong gusts. Birds inherently navigate turbulence, predatory behavior, and physical obstacles on a daily basis; Wissa and Goza seek to make this skillset possible for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

“We will develop a deep understanding about how passively deployable, feather-inspired structures can be used to control flow separation, and also provide insight into why birds deploy a specific set of feathers during flight,” said Wissa, who will be conducting wind tunnel experiments on 3D-printed models of bird wings while Goza runs numerical simulations of insect-scale wings. “Our goal is to study the role of these flow control devices at bird-scale and insect-scale flow regimes and determine whether such devices can be used for UAVs at both of these scales,” she said. 

At the end of the three-year grant, Wissa hopes to move forward with applying their findings to small-scale UAVs through flight tests. She currently has two graduate students, Chengfeng Duan and Ahmed Othman, working on the project and is actively recruiting undergraduate research assistants.

Wissa also joins co-Principal Investigators Marianne Alleyne (assistant professor, School of Integrative Biology), Andrew Suarez (professor, School of Integrative Biology), and William Barley (assistant professor, Department of Communication) in collaborating on a two-year grant awarded by NSF’s Biology Integration Institutes program. The focus of the study is to help develop teaching, research, and public engagement strategies that will ultimately lead to a proposal and funding for a bioinspired design center of excellence at UIUC. 

For the past three years, Wissa and Alleyne have been teaching their self-developed special topics course, “Bioinspired Design,” which brings together biology and engineering students to work toward design and engineering solutions based on phenomena observed in nature.

“Teaching this course has shown us that training interdisciplinary teams to work together well is difficult and requires intentional effort,” Wissa said. “For this grant, we want to develop a curriculum that uses bioinspired design as a case study to teach and train interdisciplinary teams in both classroom and collaborative research settings.” 

The team intends not only to develop a training course for students, but also to address the creation of interdisciplinary research teams. Essential to this effort is Barley, whose research focuses on how individuals from different disciplines work together across knowledge boundaries.

“At Illinois, we have this really incredible collaborative environment,” said Wissa, who hopes that the team’s work will bring about a better understanding of possible tools or training that could foster more successful interdisciplinary teams. “I think a lot of times, we have a successful collaboration that just works, and then other times, we have the best of intentions and the right people, but the collaboration doesn’t work as well. We want a better understanding of why that is and how we can make more of our collaborations succeed.”

One of the team’s objectives will be to develop a workshop for researchers that addresses the idea of team formation with bio-inspired design acting as a vehicle of encouragement. Appropriately, the co-PIs encompass a diverse range of research expertise from engineering, social sciences, and biology, with Wissa contributing engineering design, Barley bringing in the science behind interdisciplinary team formation and the development of supportive tools, and Suarez and Alleyne incorporating biological perspectives. 

“We are actually working with the Siebel Center for Design to see if we can reach a broad range of students and facilitate the idea of incorporating engineering design within biology,” Wissa said. “Based on students’ interest and engagement [with our initial courses], we are thinking about developing a full curriculum for an undergraduate certificate and a master’s degree.”

The team is currently recruiting graduate students or a postdoctoral researcher to facilitate curriculum development and perform research in a highly interdisciplinary setting. Please contact Dr. Aimy Wissa at awissa@illinois.edu if interested.

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This story was published November 9, 2020.