Sept. 17-30, 2004
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Engineer envisions vehicles of the future

 

Engineer envisions vehicles of the future
manta ray

By Charlotte Crystal

Hilary Bart-Smith
Engineer Hilary Bart-Smith
is borrowing from nature to create vehicles of the future that will mimic the movements of living organisms.

Hilary Bart-Smith one day hopes to create vehicles that move so gracefully through the air and water that they may be mistaken for living creatures.

Science fiction?

Not for Bart-Smith, who has made this seemingly far-fetched idea her life’s work — work that has now garnered the recognition needed to power her research.

Last fall, the U.Va. assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering heard that she had won a prestigious Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. During the winter, she earned a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, and just this summer, she received an invitation to the selective U.S. Frontiers of Engineering Symposium, sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering.

“These honors highlight how creative and even revolutionary Hilary’s work is,” said R. Ariel Gomez, vice president for research and graduate studies. “It is gratifying to see national recognition of our talented engineering faculty.”

A native of Scotland, Bart-Smith has been interested in engineering since high school. At 16, she participated in a math and physics program for women. As part of that program, she visited a British Aerospace factory and was introduced to engineering as a career.

“That experience led to a fascination with understanding how things around me function,” she said. “I’m the only woman I know who saw the movie ‘Titanic’ and was gaga not over Leonardo DiCaprio, but over the boiler room.”

Bart-Smith, 30, completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Glasgow, graduating first in her class in mechanical engineering, and received her doctorate from Harvard University in 2000. She completed a two-year post-doc at Princeton University where she worked on ultra-light materials (metallic foams), before joining the University of Virginia faculty in 2002. Her research interests include multifunctional materials, such as ultra-light materials, morphing structures and electro-active polymers.

It’s the morphing structures, in particular, that fuel the imagination. For now they exist only in the laboratory, but some day, Bart-Smith expects to see morphing wings moving submarines silently through the ocean like manta rays.

“Mother Nature has had the advantage of millennia to design the most efficient structures and systems,” she said. “Design engineers and material scientists have a lot of catching up to do.” Using new materials and techniques, Bart-Smith is borrowing from nature to create the vehicles of the future.

The Packard grant gives Bart-Smith $625,000 over five years to pursue her research. The NSF grant provides a similar level of funding.

“I’m very honored to be given this opportunity,” she said, “but it’s a huge responsibility. At the end of the five years, I hope to be able to present my sponsors with models of the first generation of biomimetic, underwater vehicles,” vehicles that mimic the movements of a living organism.

She believes the interdisciplinary nature of her work appealed to the Packard and National Science foundations and expects to collaborate with a number of colleagues in U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, including: Ted Iwasaki, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, who will work on controls; Pepe Humphrey, Wade Professor and chairman of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who is investigating the mechanics of insect flight, especially flapping; and Haydn Wadley, University Professor and Edgar Starke Research Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, who is working on new metallic structures that offer various combinations of attributes, such as strength, weight and blast or impact absorption.

After completing her manta ray-submarine project, Bart-Smith has loftier ambitions — applying morphing structures to airplanes. An airfoil that could change its shape in-flight would reduce drag and increase maneuverability.

In her career, Bart-Smith has chosen to navigate among what nature has done, what mankind is doing now and what, with a little math and a lot of creativity, might be done in the years ahead. Her journey may not always be free of turbulence, but it should be an interesting ride.


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