A new interdisciplinary research center at Virginia Tech brings together scientists whose research bridges engineering and biology, finding inspiration in owls’ soundless flight, bats’ remarkable echolocation, and other advanced biological systems. 

The Center for Bioinspired Science and Technology, known as BIST, was chartered as a center of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science earlier this year. Its 375 members are drawn from seven of Virginia Tech’s eight colleges. 

The center’s mission is “to have a high-quality integration between biology and engineering and to use that insight to develop technology that goes beyond the state of the art,” said Rolf Mueller, director of the center and an associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering.

Mueller’s own research focuses on bat biosonar, a sophisticated system that uses simple inputs — sound waves — to construct a detailed picture of the bats’ changing surroundings. Understanding how bats achieve this could help us develop advanced man-made sonar systems. 

Mueller said he discovered that dozens of other researchers on campus also use biological systems as models to tackle engineering problems. He said he realized that bringing researchers together would bring greater visibility to this growing branch of science and provide more opportunities for collaboration, education, and technology transfer. 

The field of bioinspired engineering is growing rapidly. Biology and engineering are ideal partners because evolution functions much like an engineering optimization process — but on much longer timescales, Mueller said. Studying how organisms solve engineering problems such as flight and fluid flow allows engineers to tap into generations of optimization. 

And now, advancements in both fields have enabled flow of ideas and techniques back and forth. "We are at a point where biology can actually produce a lot of quantitative data, and engineers are able to deal with more complicated systems. In a way it’s a new overlapping area that didn’t exist before,” Mueller said.

BIST researchers are taking advantage of that new overlap to address practical engineering challenges. For example, owls’ ability to fly noiselessly over their prey could suggest strategies for mitigating the noxious sounds produced by wind turbines. Modeling the way bats and fish move in large groups without running into each other could help engineers find ways to automatically control air or automobile traffic. 

The center also is working to build a community and make connections on and off campus. Weekly Friday lunch meetings provide an opportunity for informal conversation and idea exchange. The center is reaching out to industry groups that could benefit from bioinspired technology. Center members are developing a list of related courses for interested students with the goal of eventually offering a minor. 

The center also coordinates with the BioBuild interdisciplinary graduate education program, which gives students the tools to develop bioinspired buildings and communities. 

“Bioinspiration can provide a creative lens to promote innovation and disruptive advances in engineering,” said Roop Mahajan, director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. “The BIST Center will provide an effective forum for engineers and biologists to come together to fully exploit the potential of bioinspiration.” 

Fostering collaborations that eventually reach the scale of a coordinated center is a critical element of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science growth model. 

This model is motivated by the idea that bringing together scientists with different perspective and expertise for sustained collaboration creates an environment where technology challenges can be addressed in detail, from multiple angles.  

“Whenever there has been big progress, someone has looked really closely,” Mueller said.