Three hundred million years of evolution have turned the dragonfly into a marvel of flight. These highly efficient insects can propel themselves in six directions and sustain bursts of speed of 30 miles per hour, making them the ideal inspiration for Associate Professor Haibo Dong’s efforts to build a micro air vehicle, a tiny, highly maneuverable robot that could be used for safety and surveillance.
Third-year engineering student Ventress Williams is part of this project, as an undergraduate member of Dong’s Flow Simulation Research Group. When he talks about the strain energy that develops in a dragonfly wing during flight, he does so with authority and enthusiasm, thanks to the guidance and support Dong has provided.
A professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Dong embraces the idea of undergraduate research. From his perspective, participating in research is the ideal complement to the classroom, giving students the opportunity to truly appreciate the utility of the principles they study. “The principles we study come alive in the lab,” he said.
Dong is careful, however, to immerse undergraduates in research gradually. He begins by sending them to the University’s Dell Pond to capture dragonflies, reasoning that there is no better way to acquaint them with the insect’s amazing agility and control. As students become more knowledgeable about the research, Dong guides them in selecting a research topic that matches their skills.
One factor that contributes to the dragonfly’s efficiency is that its wings deform as they move, in effect storing strain energy. This energy is released at critical moments when the wing snaps back into alignment. Williams is studying how this process works.
Although Williams is not sure whether he will go on to graduate school, he has discovered he enjoys research. “If Professor Dong will have me,” he says, “I’m definitely on board for being in the lab for the rest of my time at U.Va.”