Capturing swarms

USU assistant professor of engineering Tadd Truscott explains the mechanics of photron cameras, used to track images of birds and fish in space and time, in his lab on the Logan campus on Tuesday.

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A Utah State University assistant professor of engineering will study swarming behavior among animals — whether it be schools of fish or packs of beetles — to ultimately help make better autonomous vehicles.

Tadd Truscott, an expert on fluid mechanics images, will receive major funding from the Department of the Navy’s Young Investigator Program. The Office of Naval Research, or ONR, announced May 1 it is awarding Truscott and 35 other college and university researchers around the country a total of $18.8 million in grants to fund research across a range of Navy-related science and technology areas.

“Funding can be difficult to get, so it’s exciting when you do,” Truscott said.

Truscott, who’s studied the behavior of pigeons using advanced camera technology, said the behavior of animals is a good barometer of research for the Department of the Navy study.

“I’m definitely using clues from nature about how groups interact to implement those into models and then, eventually, robotic behavior,” Truscott said. “Those animals do really well in working together for a common goal — whether it’s predatorization or hunting. I’m not the first to say biomimicry is useful; there are a lot of people doing that. What’s different is that we’re focusing less on robots and more on nature. We’re interested in how animals do this (synchronous behavior) with their sensory organs, whereas a lot of other groups haven’t done that. There are a lot of reasons this hasn’t worked before.”

Truscott’s team will use a multi-camera array to capture high-resolution imagery of insects, birds and small fish. This data will then be analyzed and incorporated into 3D models.

From that, they’ll develop models of the animals’ behavior and attempt to mimic them by implementing those models in swarms of small table robots, Truscott said.

“I think the application is to not just help the Navy but robotics in general — trying to help robots understand how to interact with other robots and with humans as a group,” Truscott said. “If you’re riding a bike with a group, on some cognitive level, you’re able to be in a group; it’s just natural. This is what we want robots to do — be a in a group, and naturally and ably, so they don’t have to think about the group dynamics, they focus more on the mission, let’s say. If they’re alongside Naval personnel, we need them to be able to do that without harming the personnel. The robots need to keep doing their job. Insects can do this at some cognitive level, but robots have a hard time.”

ONR’s Young Investigator Program is designed to promote the professional development of early career academic scientists. The funding supports lab equipment, graduate student stipends and other expenses. Awardees receive annual monetary awards over a three-year period.

A total of $18.8 million in grants will go to winners representing 31 academic institutions across the country in disciplines ranging from nanoelectronics, robotics, machine learning, acoustics, structural and fluid dynamics, quantum science, ocean-atmospheric interaction, solar cells, communication, neural and cognitive science and undersea technologies.

Larry Schuette, director of research in the Office of Naval Research, said Truscott’s proposal was chosen because collaborative and swarming control of autonomous systems “represent an important naval interest area.” Just last year, ONR demonstrated unmanned surface vehicles swarming in exercises on the James River in Virginia.

“Dr. Truscott has made a significant impact in the field of high-speed imaging and has demonstrated creative concepts and strong tendencies for collaboration in multi-disciplinary problem-solving,” Schuette said. “These qualities will make him a future leader in advancing cooperative autonomy sciences and technology.”

Schuette also said Truscott’s work “will advance creative and new concepts including imaging/pattern recognition, biology, engineering, and control community along with interests in air and maritime applications. These perspectives will move concepts toward a robust investigation into collaborative autonomous unmanned systems designed to keep sailors and platforms out of harm's way.”

Twitter: KevJourno

Kevin Opsahl is a staff writer and features editor at The Herald Journal. He can be reached at 435-752-2121 ext. 1016 or by email at

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