Biological questions, Engineering approaches & Design applications.

Research Vision

David Lentink | Integrating Biology, Engineering & Aerial Robot Design.

My lab studies how birds fly so well to develop better flying robots. I work together with my lab members who span mechanical engineering disciplines from Robotics to Biomechanics, Fluid Mechanics, and beyond. Integration of these and other disciplines plays a pivotal role in our research, discovery, and invention success. The interdisciplinary research in my lab is inspired by my multidisciplinary training: I first earned a BS and MS in Aerospace Engineering from Delft University of Technology, after which I pursued a PhD (cum laude) in Experimental Zoology at Wageningen University, during which I visited Caltech to study insect flight in a Bioengineering lab and, finally, I completed my training with a Postdoc in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. During these formative experiences, I integrated Aerodynamics, Biomechanics, and Robotics in my projects - research disciplines that now form the main pillars of my multidisciplinary lab at Stanford University.

I am fascinated by the mechanics of flying organisms, especially birds, but also bats, insects, and autorotating seeds. My main research question is how the interplay between Newton’s laws of motion and Darwin’s theory of evolution shapes flight in nature. My research vision is to probe this broad question using an integrated approach based on (1) my passion for identifying key biological questions about flying organisms that are most likely to provide answers, (2) my innovative engineering models and measurement techniques designed to transform our understanding of natural locomotion in fluids, that (3) yield inspiration for designing novel unmanned vehicles, which give new insight that lead to new biological questions.

Biological inspiration | Many organisms must fly through the atmosphere in order to survive and reproduce. Their development as an individual and their evolution as a species are shaped by the physical interaction between organism and surrounding air. It is critical that the organism’s architecture is tuned for propelling itself and controlling its motion. Macroscopic animals maximize performance by generating and manipulating vortices. These vortices are created close to the body as it is driven by the action of muscles or gravity, then are ‘shed’ to form a wake (a trackway left behind in the atmosphere). To better understand how the organism’s architecture, ranging from its sensory-motor system to its structural design, is tuned to utilize the fluid dynamics of vortices, I study the biomechanics of flight. My approach comprises innovative instruments, robot models, simulations, and animal experiments. In these studies I collaborate with engineers, biologists, and physicists from universities around the world.

Engineering methods | Studying the biomechanics of these organisms is challenging, because instruments and experimental setups must often be custom designed. My approach is to invent, design, and engineer novel experimental setups and animal models using advanced engineering techniques. These methods range from numerical modeling and design (e.g. CAD, CFD, FEM, and custom codes in Matlab for image analysis) to physical fabrication (e.g. rapid prototyping and CAM). I develop robotic models and setups that utilize advanced instruments (e.g. PIV, flow tunnels, high-speed video & structured light scanners) to capture and analyze the locomotion of flying organisms. I form enabling teams with specialists,my students, and technical staff. This integrative approach, in combination with comparative biomechanics, allows my team to solve scientific conundrums.

Aerial robot design | My reverse-engineering analysis of biological flight inspires me to forward engineer novel unmanned vehicles that fly well. In this I marry my biological and engineering insight to inspire student teams to develop a wide range of flying vehicles. I have guided a team that developed the first flapping micro air vehicle that can both take off and land vertically, and fly fast forward ( and another team that built the first micro air vehicle that can morph its wings like a bird using artificial feathers ( In my lab at Stanford my research group integrates comparative biomechanics, engineering, and aerial robot design in one lab. This gives students and postdocs unique opportunities to innovate in the field of bio-inspired flight. My lab not only makes major advances in aerial robot design inspired by our biological flight discoveries - the aerial robot design and flight research outcomes inspire new bird research projects to find solutions that push the boundaries of what is thought possible in robotics. 

If you like to learn more about how I became passionate about aerial robot design, see this Stanford News Story about the history of Stanford Robotics in which I share some personal details on how I got excited about robotics.