Dr Thrishantha Nanayakkara, Reader in Design Engineering and Robotics, Dyson School of Design Engineering

“We use robotics to understand how animals solve survival problems in their natural environment, like how mountain goats survive on steep cliffs.” 

“I am the director of the Morph Lab. We use robotics to understand how animals solve survival problems in their natural environment. For instance, we conduct experiments on soft robotic hoofs to understand how mountain goats survive on steep cliffs. We have discovered that the hoof works like a brain to convert slips against the cliff to vibrations that automatically create a braking action. This is similar to how an automobile’s anti-lock braking system (ABS) works.   

“Before the pandemic I enjoyed demonstrating the Morph Lab’s work to the public. It is rewarding to hear people say that our work helped them to understand a complex issue.  

“I began my studies in Sri Lanka before going to Japan and the US. When the civil war ended, I returned home to Sri Lanka to set up a bio-inspired robotics lab to support landmine detection work. Before joining the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial in 2017, I also worked at Harvard, MIT and King’s College London. 

“When the pandemic began, we wanted to re-purpose our work to help the NHS. We focused on minimising ventilator-induced lung injuries and hope to develop our ideas into a funded research project. We found new ways to do robotics research and where possible we replaced our physical experiments with augmented reality applications. I also collaborated with the Digital Learning Hub to allow students to project a robot onto a table so that they could interact with it to understand 3D kinematics mathematics.  

“I am really excited about our spin out company, Permia Sensing Ltd, which uses an intelligent portable sensor to detect red palm weevil in coconut palm trees. This insect has been designated a global threat by the United Nations. We are already working in five countries and plan to expand rapidly. 

“I increased the time I spend on Vipassana Meditation during the pandemic which helped me to find peace and stability to get through the tough time. I also practised karate at home with some basic equipment to replace the dojo experience. The pandemic has reminded us of the value of fresh air, nature, exercise, friendships and healthy living.”

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