Tackling the Climate Crisis with Energy Transitions

Our third year Aerospace Engineering student Kieran Tait recently returned from a transformative journey through Western Canada, representing the University at the Energy Transitions summer school at the University of Alberta. A timely topic following the recent declaration of climate emergency here at the university. Over to Kieran to tell us about his time in Alberta…

Kieran underneath a glacier in Lake Louise, Banff National Park.

Throughout the two weeks, we endured a 40-hour lecture series, in which world-leading industry experts and researchers presented to us the current state of energy, the outlook for the future and an insight into different types of energy systems and their relative merits. This was superbly rounded off with insightful field trips including a tour around a wind farm and a hydroelectric dam, which really helped to contextualise the lectures.

The course was coordinated by the Worldwide Universities network, in which 21 representatives from 13 universities worldwide came together to study the practicalities of decarbonising society. The network brought a diversity of cultures and study areas together, which really shed light on the interconnectedness of the energy crisis and the need for mass mobilisation of society to focus minds on the solutions to the single biggest existential crisis humanity has ever faced. Climate breakdown.

The impending breakdown of our climate is an issue faced by every living being on Earth: no matter your nationality, race, gender, beliefs or background, the impacts of a warming world will completely transform your standard of living in the coming decades unless drastic steps are taken in the next 18 months to transition away from our current overconsuming, unsustainable way of life.

If we fail to meet this objective, we can expect unprecedented weather events, resulting in scarcity of basic human resources such as land, food and water, mass migration in the hundreds of millions and potentially the collapse of civilisation as we know it. Worse still, we can expect all of this as early as 2050 if action is not taken immediately. The seemingly impossible task imposed on our current generation is unparalleled in scale and complexity. It will require a collaboration among all disciplines and every nation on earth to achieve the sort of far reaching and functional solutions required to give us the best chance of limiting the warming trajectory preventing us from passing the point of no return.

Visiting the TransAlta wind farm in Pincher Creek, known as the Wind Capital of Canada.

The course in Energy Transitions provided me with the fundamental knowledge required to propose a logical working plan to phase out the current destructive energy policy and replace it with a more sustainable alternative. This included an overview of current climate science and projections for the future global energy mix, followed by an insight into a variety of energy production methods, including traditional fossil based systems such as coal, oil and gas and renewable types such as wind, solar, hydro, marine, geothermal, nuclear, biomass and hydrogen fuel cells.

The science behind each technology was explained thoroughly and the social, environmental and political implications associated with each type were also discussed. Also carbon sequestration methods such as Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage and land reclamation were explained to us in great depth, as it is clear that we need to not only reduce emissions to zero, but also begin to remove emissions that already exist in the atmosphere if we are to maximise our chances of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Alongside lectures, we also got the chance to go to Pincher Creek, a town in southern Alberta which is home to a large number of wind farm projects, making use of the region’s windy climate. We got the chance to visit a wind farm and go inside a turbine and we were also shown around a hydroelectric dam, bringing to life the concepts studied in lectures. Further to this we visited Waterton Lakes national park to experience some of the natural beauty Canada has to offer.

The group outside the house of the University’s founder Alexander Rutherford, before a ceremonial dinner.

When we returned, it was back to work as we all were tasked with presenting to the rest of the group, a proposal for energy transition solutions throughout different areas of the world. My team and I were given the job of proposing an EU wide energy transition plan. A timely subject following the newly anointed European Commissioner’s calls for a climate-neutral Europe by 2050. This task involved reviewing current policy and future goals, developing a sustainable infrastructure plan which would sufficiently meet increasing demand and discussing the issues associated with this transition.

Working with students from Spain, Ghana and Brazil led to some contrasting opinions and views on various subject matters, however the overwhelming consensus was that the transition had to phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible, acknowledging the need to sacrifice living standards in order to allow this rapid transition to happen. It is reassuring to know that despite our cultural differences, we all share the same view that action must be taken immediately, and we must undergo a process of degrowth to cut further emissions and keep temperature rises to a minimum to avert catastrophic climate change.

All in all, this course excelled at bringing like-minded inquisitive individuals together from a diversity of cultures and backgrounds to discuss the most pressing technological, political and ethical challenge humanity has ever faced. It’s admittedly a very frightening time to be a young person, but its undeniable that the times ahead present humanity with a chance to reach a new age in technological and cognitive ability and will allow for multi-national cooperation like the world has never seen before. I would like to thank the Worldwide Universities Network, the University of Alberta and everybody involved for making this incredible experience a possibility!

It’s fantastic to hear Kieran’s passion and enthusiasm for combating the climate crisis we are facing through engineering and renewable energy solutions. This is something that the University is highly committed to and this year world-leading renewable energy expert Andrew Garrard will be joining the Faculty as a visiting professor to enhance our teaching of sustainable energy not only to our engineering undergraduates but to students across the University. 

Upcoming Events

  • Climate Emergency Lecture, 27 September Kieran will be delivering a talk at the Climate Emergency Lecture on decarbonising the aviation industry through electric aircraft and the use of alternative fuels. See event details here.

  • Dr Andrew Garrard Inaugural Lecture, 3 October Andrew has unrivalled technical and business experience in the sustainable energy sector. His lecture will explore the political means adopted to achieve the recent dramatic global growth in renewables and the engineering challenges, technical and political, which face the next generation of engineers. Get your free ticket here.

Fitter, happier… the rise of social robots

Socially Assistive Robots can provide motivation and guidance for those in need of a companion – Katie Winkle, Bristol Robotics Lab PhD student, explains ways that this is already happening

On 4 August this year, the maverick French inventor Franky Zapata crossed the Channel on a jet-powered hoverboard, with the 21-mile journey taking him just over 23 minutes. Clearly a remarkable achievement, but also a very public prompt to all those working in labs on the cool tech of the future – as envisioned by the sci-fi shows of the 50s – that they need to up their game. Yes, the white-coated technicians responsible for jetpacks, flying cars and robot housekeepers – we are talking about you. Teasing aside, Katie Winkle, a PhD student currently undertaking research at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, specialises in the field of Socially Assistive Robotics (SAR) and is certain that her area of study isn’t an unrealisable sci-fi pipe dream.

“I don’t think the use of robots as social companions and helpers is that far away, actually,” she says confidently. “Right now, I could program a robot for a specific use case for a school or a hospital. The real difficulty is in scaling that up in a way that still works for lots of different people and applications. That’s why we are researching it, but it is doable. I’m optimistic.”

Socially Assistive Robotics is a relatively new area of robotics that focuses on assisting users through social rather than physical interaction. So while there are physical robots that have been designed to help with ostensibly manual tasks as varied as assembling cars or even picking strawberries, a Socially Assistive Robot is subtler than that.

‘Pepper’ robot demonstrates arm exercises to a patient

They’re not going to help you out of bed by lifting you, but they might tell you to get out of bed. Or they might remind you to take your medicine.

They can support a trained practitioner, such as a teacher, to provide guidance and motivation to a person – in doing so, they attempt to give the correct cognitive cues to encourage development, learning, or therapy.

As Katie explains: “The distinction is that these robots aren’t physical, they are social. They’re not going to help you out of bed by lifting you, but they might tell you to get out of bed. Or they might remind you to take your medicine. They could even help to combat the issue of loneliness. The key is that the usefulness comes from the social interaction, such as conversation and companionship, rather than a physical act.”

Pet rescue

Another key definition is that a Socially Assistive Robot is not simply for entertainment and they should perform a useful process. But what are the main fields that these robotic companions could help and what are the tangible examples?

Robots have been introduced into nursing homes, where dementia patients have been given robotic pets to help with wellbeing. There’s certainly less mess than with a real dog.

“There are many, but the two areas I always mention first are health and education,” says Katie. “The applications we are starting to see linked to mental health are generally based around loneliness and dementia care. Robots have been introduced into nursing homes, where dementia patients have been given robotic pets to help with wellbeing. There’s certainly less mess than with a real dog.”

Another example is the use of robots in autism therapy. For children who have autism or social anxiety, robots can provide a safe social companion, ‘someone’ they can practice social interaction with. Autistic children respond well in these circumstances. In these cases, the robots are being essentially used to help them with their social skills and that has a very real application of putting them back into human-human interaction.

Katie Winkle with a Nao robot

“All these robots are helping where you need a social presence and there isn’t a human available,” explains Katie. “So, in between therapy visits or gym sessions, there is a robot there to provide the motivation you don’t have.

“As a proposal for future research here at the Lab, I would love to take a robot into Bristol Childrens’ Hospital and use it as a companion for children who are isolated there long-term.”

The use of Socially Assistive Robots in education is essentially the same thing again: helping children who perhaps need extra attention, or children in group sizes that are too big. The robot can perform small group work.

“It’s anywhere where you’d like to have an intelligent social presence, but you don’t. They are all cases where social influence is important,” adds Katie.

Personality issues

It’s important to Katie that her work at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory must at all times consider the end-user, the human who is being assisted by the robot. Just as you might not get along with your teacher or clash with the personality of another, is there any guarantee you’ll get on with your robot?

“The personality type of the robot needs to suit the personality of the person it is helping.”

“When we talk about robot personalities and robot emotions,” explains Katie, “what we are really saying is how well can we program a robot to look like it has those. This means we need to learn about human behaviour and then hook it into a robot. If someone is an extrovert, they’ll talk a lot, move hands about… we can model many of those things from psychology and put it on a robot. The personality type of the robot needs to suit the personality of the person it is helping.”

Metal motivators

“I’m working on a study right now where I’ve got a robot set up in the gym over on campus. The idea is to help people with the Couch To 5k running programme over a nine-week programme, with the robot assisting three times a week. To begin with, the robot is being controlled with the fitness instructor and over time, the robot will learn how to give encouragements at the right time.

“The robot will be giving the runners challenges. Some will respond to direct encouragement – ‘Come on, you can do it! Push a bit harder!’, while with others, it will be more sympathetic, because that’s what they need. Personalisation of robot interaction is a big thing.”

Katie’s Couch To 5k study is an easy-to-understand, tangible concept that brings the near-endless possibilities of Socially Assistive Robots to life. But are there any areas where they won’t be able to help?

We’ll leave the final word to Katie: “I’ve seen work investigating the effectiveness of a ‘marriage counsellor’ robot – it was a talking head in a wig that was supposed to facilitate conversation in couples therapy. Even I’m not sure about that one just yet, it’s a bit of a stretch.”

Academic profile

Name: Katie Winkle (MEng)
Title: PhD Student at Bristol Robotics Laboratory
Studies:
MEng Mechanical Engineering
PhD Robotics and Autonomous Systems

Katie’s story:
“Growing up, I was interested in cars, in how machines work, stuff we can build using science in an applied way. My dad was a car mechanic and he encouraged my curiosity.

“My Undergraduate Degree was Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol. I was all set to go into the automotive industry and wasn’t at all thinking about robotics. Then we had a final-year lecturing unit on the subject and it completely captured my imagination.

“I originally thought I’d work with very physical assistive robots, like those that help you walk. But as I got here, I found I was much more drawn to social interaction. I found it much more interesting. I was amazed that I could put a social robot in front of somebody right now and how I could make that useful. I find the underlying psychology so fascinating and that’s why I’m where I ended up now.”

Our high-flying engineering students

Our amazing Aerospace Engineering students have been taking to the skies during their work with Gravity Industries.

PhD students Abhishek Gautam and Lewis Munshi, and five undergraduate students from the Aerospace department have had the amazing opportunity to work on flight dynamics, wing design and developing a jet suit exoskeleton for Gravity Industries. Truly putting engineering theory into practice.

Celebrating International Women in Engineering Day

Sunday 23rd June is International Women in Engineering Day – we are proud to have so many amazing women working and studying here, in such a wide variety of disciplines and roles. Here are just a few…

Professor Lucy Berthoud – Professor of Space Engineering

I teach SpaProfessor Lucy Berthoudcecraft Systems Engineering in the Aerospace Engineering department and I also work in industry at Thales Alenia Space UK -a spacecraft design company. In industry I work on satellite design for future science missions and at the University of Bristol I work with students to help them to design and build their own satellites.

Read more about Lucy’s work

Kalyani Rajkumar – Research Associate, Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering

Kalyani RajkumarKalyani successfully completed her postgraduate course in Advanced Microelectronic Systems Engineering (AMSE) at the University of Bristol and now works on 5G technology at the Smart Internet lab at the University.

Read more about her student experience.

Dr Antonia Tzemanaki – Lecturer, Department of Mechanical Engineering – Member of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory

I reDr Antonia Tzemanakisearch and develop wearable robotic devices with application in healthcare. This can lead to finding novel solutions to problems that can transform society, which I find very exciting. I also try to combine teaching and research, as working with students on these challenges can be very fulfilling.

Christine Braganza and Ella Allan (students, Department of Mechanical Engineering) and Octavia Clark (student, Engineering Design)

Christine Braganza, Ella Allan and Octavia Clark

Christine, Octavia and Ella created ‘A Grand Gromplication’ for the 2018 Gromit Unleashed 2 charity trail with the help of our brilliant technicians. Read more.

 

 

Professor Weiru Liu – Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Research Director

Professor Weiru LiuMy research is to investigate advanced technologies for developing data-driven intelligent autonomous systems in an  increasingly connected world, so as to  benefit our society and our citizens. Applications of intelligent autonomous systems  are endless, from future transportation, digital health, to personal assistance and  environment monitoring, to name a few.

Dr Ruzanna Chitchyan – EPSRC fellow on Living with Environmental Change and Yael Zekaria – Research Associate, Department of Computer Science

RuzaDr Ruzanna Chitchyan and Yael Zekaria at the International Conference on ICT for Sustainabilitynna is providing software support as the UK’s energy system moves from a fossil fuel-based, centralised set up to a clean, localised, renewables-based alternative. Yael works on modelling skills shortages and training needs, helping  to ensure that the work force is ready for such a transition. Their work is essential to ensure the UK continues to have a reliable, affordable energy supply to homes and businesses. They also focus on the societal impact of the new energy models, making sure that they lead to positive social and community building activities.

Ruzanna is a member of the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

Rachael De’Ath – Senior Teaching Associate, Department of Civil Engineering

Rachael De'Ath working on siteI am a Chartered Structural Engineer at Arup Bristol as well as lecturing at University. I love designing buildings and working as part of a team to deliver them. I think it is really important as it can make such a difference to many people. My particular area of interest and experience is in reuse of existing buildings which I believe is a really important part of sustainable development, as well as always being an interesting challenge as an Engineer!

Rachael was one of the Telegraph Top 50 Women in Engineering 2018.

Grace Kelly and Cora Fung – students, Department of Civil Engineering

Grace Kelly and Cora Fung receiving their awards

Grace Kelly and Cora Fung came first and second in the Institute of Civil Engineers South West Emerging Engineers Award.

The Emerging Engineers Award promotes and rewards outstanding communication of civil engineering ideas and research.

Read the news story.

Dr Karen Aplin – Senior Lecturer in Space Engineering

Dr Karen Aplin and Dr Keri Nicoll working on the Snowdon summit

In this picture I’m with my colleague Dr Keri Nicoll (Universities of Bath and Reading) working on my cosmic ray and meteorological station at Snowdon Summit. I study the effects of space weather on our atmosphere and this research is part of a Welsh language outreach project run by the Royal Astronomical Society. Two Bristol Engineering undergraduate women are also working on this project – Ilham Said from the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Annabelle Bale from Engineering Mathematics.

 

Cara Williamson and Anouk Spelt – PhD students

Cara Williamson and Anouk Spelt

Cara and Anouk are based in the Bio-Inspired Flight lab under the supervision of Dr Shane Windsor. Together, they set up the Urban Gull Project which uses GPS tags to follow 11 lesser black-backed gulls nesting on roofs in Bristol. The project combines engineering and biology. They aim to investigate how urban gulls use and navigate through the urban environment to find out how they save energy and use this knowledge to improve drone navigation in cities. They have also designed and run an outreach event to inspire young people in underrepresented demographics to choose a career in STEM subjects, So far they’ve reached more than 550 young people in Bristol.

Catherine Manning – HR Officer

Catherine Manning
I see myself as facilitator – helping all staff within the Engineering Faculty not only to enjoy being at work, but to fulfill their career potential.  No two days are the same!  I could be supporting someone with disabilities that needs extra assistance, providing HR training on terms and conditions of employment or working on faculty-led projects that promote staff well-being. It’s a busy and varied role and I thoroughly enjoy being part of a team.

Valentina Noacco – NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow, Water and Environmental Engineering Research Group
Valentina Noacco speaking at a workshopValentina works with the insurance sector to help them make more robust decisions based on their catastrophe models.  By transferring methods, software and expertise on uncertainty and sensitivity analysis, this research has an impact in the real world ensuring financial resilience and better preparation for when disasters hit.

 

Dr Valeska Ting – Reader in Smart Nanomaterials, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Dr Valeska Ting working in the labI am a materials engineer working on the design, fabrication and testing of nanomaterial-based composites. The materials we develop will help us to lower the carbon dioxide emissions from transportation and will allow the adoption of more sustainable fuel sources such as renewable hydrogen.

 

Want to be part of our community?

We’re always looking for more excellent people to join our community. See the full list of job opportunities in the Faculty of Engineering.

Find out more about undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

Read about our work to improve diversity.

It’s a boat! It’s a car! It’s… an amphibious super-vehicle!

Our second-year Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Design students did a practical experiment to see which types of vehicle travel through water as well as they run on roads.

The competition saw 190 students working in teams of three to four to design, build and test a successful amphibious vehicle. Their vehicles had to traverse the water obstacle course in less than 40 seconds and weigh in at less than 450 grams.

The purpose of the project is for the students to model and physically realise engineering systems, to manufacture working prototypes and to assess their vehicle’s performance.

And, as you can see from the video, it’s about enjoying the process too!

A day in the life of a Masters student

We asked Samia Mohinta, an Engineering Masters student, to give us a run down of a typical day at the University of Bristol. She’s certainly making the most of her time here…

A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library – Shelby Foote

This definitely doesn’t hold for University of Bristol. We do have libraries and a lot in number, but the buildings also house several exciting things. Most importantly, our labs.

Very shortly about me – I am an MSc student, pursuing Advanced Computing – Machine Learning, Data Mining and High-Performance Computing here in Bristol. I am currently in my second and the penultimate semester for this programme.

I realised that it would be interesting for you all, who are preparing to join UoB in the coming months, to know life functions as a University here. Hence, this post. Fasten your seatbelts and let’s go for a ride.

Day: Tuesday

8.30am

Walk to University for my first lecture

Time to wake up. Today is Tuesday and I have 2 lectures to attend and coursework to work on. Even though my lectures are from 11am, I prefer to wake up a bit early to prepare breakfast and do a bit of ‘planning the day ahead’. I stay in a shared private accommodation, so I grab the breakfast I require and go to the communal kitchen.

Breakfast doesn’t take long and I’m back in room by 9.30am. I generally prefer to make a TO-DO list for the day that also includes information about my extra/co-curricular engagements, if any, for the day, along with my study objectives. We do have a different sets of assignments each week and I feel it’s better to plan it to avoid missing deadlines.

10.30am

I’m ready to go to my first lecture, which is on Robotics Systems. Must say that it is a very fun module, wherein we get to work with actual robots. It’s very challenging also. The Robotic Systems lecture is scheduled in the Chemistry Building, which is about a 12min walk from my place. So, I do reach on time, if you were curious 🙂

11am-12pm

On my lunch hour

Lecture time. Today we are learning about how use a robot to explore an environment and encode a few crucial bits of information about it. Each lecture ideally lasts 50 minutes, given a few exceptions.

We also have 2 or 3 hours lectures and labs, but those generally are scheduled once a week.

12pm

Done with the lecture and now I am heading to another building called the Merchant Venturers Building to meet a few friends, who happen to be my course-mates. We are going to discuss a few ideas on the upcoming robotics assignment and head off to grab lunch at 1pm. Just to let you know, 1-2pm is the lunch hour.

1.40pm

The Merchant Venturer’s Building path

Lunch done. Need to go to the next lecture now. This is one of my favourite subjects right now, because I have always been extremely intrigued by the human brain and its advanced functionalities. The lecture is on Computational Neuroscience. This lecture also lasts for an hour and is held in the Queen’s Building.

Yes, you guessed it right. A CS student like me has to walk a lot every day because we have our lectures spread out across the campus. I take it as a perk, because it saves me from gym subscriptions 🙂 Moreover, you get to take classes in different buildings, which are all architecturally varied. How cool is that!! I love architecture 🙂

3pm

Done with the lecture. Learnt about neurons and now heading to deal with my coursework, which is also on Computational Neuroscience. So, I prefer to work in the MVB (Merchant Venturers Building), because it has got the computer labs. Our lifeblood!

I am working with a few friends and we try to help each other out as and when we get stuck with something. Sometimes I also drop into my lecturer’s office to get clarity on a specific concept. But, today I hope, I don’t have to do that. I believe I shall be able to solve the problem given the resources at hand and with some collective intelligence.

5pm

Almost done with the coursework. Need a break from studies and what can be better than indulging in an Engineering talk with a lot of free pizzas. Yes, there is a talk today by a renowned faculty member on the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence. So, I am tagging along with my group to attend that talk in Queen’s. I’m sure it will be fun.

6.30pm

That was a fun talk and loads of info! Time to call it a day from Uni. Dinner is waiting to be cooked back home and after that I need to finish my coursework.

8.30pm

Have finished dinner. Met my housemates. Chitted-chatted. Let’s get done with the coursework.

9.30pm

Evening view from Queen’s

Coursework done and dusted. Now the thing that is left is verification and validation of what I have done as part of it. I’ll take this up tomorrow with my friends.

Extra-curricula’s on. Yeah, I know, I am odd. I go for a run every day at this hour. Fresh air gives me a fresh mind. I should mention that Bristol is very safe and I’ve not had any problems.

10.30pm

Got back. Re-hydrated my body and now I wish to engage in some co-curriculas. Food for the brain is important too. I am going to watch a few TEDx videos now for about 40 minutes. I have made the list of videos to watch in the morning. That’s how I know the time it will require.

12am

Woow!! Great videos. Awesomely inspiring and intriguing. Was a good day. Should sleep now. Tomorrow is a new day and will be a new schedule too.

Hope you all have got an idea of how an ordinary day looks like here. Some days are quiet, some are really eventful. Some can be productive and some might be pretty annoying too. But as we say, variety is the spice of life. Challenges make it more exciting. There are loads of opportunities and things to do here than just study.

Good luck!!

You can read more about Samia in her ‘top tips for an international student’ blog

The earthquake shaking table competition

Our second year Civil Engineering MEng students compete to create the most resilient structure using the knowledge gained through their course. The shaking table runs a series of greater magnitude shakes until only one tower remains intact.

MEng in Civil Engineering students learn about the design of steel and concrete structures in the context of realistic multi-storey buildings incorporating common beam, column and slab arrangements.

If you want to gain a greater knowledge in earthquake engineering, we have the MSc in Earthquake Engineering and Infrastructure Resilience. One of the highlights of this programme is a field trip to an earthquake affected area, where students can visit structures and inspect recent damage.

Find out more about Civil Engineering at the University of Bristol

Building a replica Enigma Machine

Computer Science student Tom has built a working replica of the Enigma Machine used to send encoded messages during World War Two. He spent a six week internship in our Engineering Hackspace building the replica, which is now being used by students and school children to explore codes and number theory.

Bristol is a world leader in cryptography and our Computer Science students learn all about keeping systems like power stations and the NHS safe from hackers.
Find out more at http://www.bristol.ac.uk/computerscience/

Gulliver’s travels: can drones learn from nature?

Unmanned aerial vehicles are rarely out of the headlines. The world’s first driverless passenger drone has already been tested in China, and major companies have begun trialling drone deliveries to customers.

But despite this huge acceleration in popularity there’s a number of challenges which drone manufacturers are facing, not least the matter of urban drone navigation. To investigate this problem, PhD students Cara Williamson and Anouk Spelt are studying urban gulls to understand the most efficient flight paths through urban landscapes. We spoke to Cara to learn more about their project.

Drones could benefit society in so many ways, from the obvious, such as parcel delivery, to the life-changing, such as being the first point of contact for emergency services.

“The Urban Gull Project was started in 2016 by myself and Anouk Spelt as part of our PhD research. We’re supervised by Dr Shane Windsor who won a grant to start the Bio-Inspired Flight Lab.  Over millions of years, nature has optimised for every environment – urban gulls are particularly adept at coping with the complex wind flows around city buildings. UAVs could use similar flight strategies. Drones could benefit society in so many ways, from the obvious, such as parcel delivery, to the life-changing, such as being the first point of contact for emergency services.

Computational model of wind flow over buildings

“The project brings together biology and engineering, using GPS devices on 11 lesser black-backed gulls in Bristol. The tiny backpacks (under 3% of the bird’s weight) track location, altitude, speed and 3D acceleration data which tells us whether the birds are soaring or flapping.  Preliminary research showed how gulls position themselves in updrafts on the windward side of buildings to improve control and mitigate risks from gusts. These wind-highways help them maintain altitude so they can soar for a third of their flight time.  We’re now seeing that gulls choose routes to foraging grounds that save them energy, even if they are twice the shortest distance.

Battery life is a big problem for drones. Batteries are heavy and limit their range and endurance.

“The wind modelling and path planning method I’ve been using is very quick and could be run in advance of a UAV making a delivery, for example, in order to pick a route that keeps energy costs to a minimum. Battery life is a big problem for drones. Batteries are heavy and limit their range and endurance.

Tracking gull flight around Bristol.

“We collect habitat and weather data in and around Bristol. It’s the perfect location as it combines a diverse built environment with an established gull population. Over the last few decades, the birds’ distribution has moved away from traditional seaside haunts. It’s thought that cities offer warmer temperatures, protected nesting sites and rich pickings from our litter. Anouk compares the gulls’ foraging behaviour and energetic costs with their rural cousins to establish what is really going on.  Despite being referred to as seagulls, our birds don’t visit the sea at all during breeding season (March-August), which is why we use the term urban gulls (first coined by our collaborator and South West gull expert of over 30 years, Pete Rock).

Cara and Anouk present their projects.

“Having followed the gulls for three years, we’ve seen a gull laying an egg, held hatching eggs and watched chicks taking their first flight. Our work has taken us to the top of landfills, quarries, the waste treatment centre and up many tall buildings and church spires. The gulls have distinct traits – we even named some of them after our favourite Game of Thrones characters; Arya (quite feisty – tried to peck us); Sansa (the most beautiful); Lady Brienne (the largest) and Tyrion (the smallest). We also got very attached to the first season’s chicks and learnt the hard way that nature can be quite brutal. It would be good to mend the human-gull relationship. We want to get the message out that when animals thrive in the environments we create, they can teach us so much. It’s vital to study and conserve the natural world.

“At the moment, we’ve got a packed programme of workshops in schools. Pupils design and fly drones and find out about bio-inspired engineering and wind pattern modelling.  We’ve had some really encouraging feedback and we hope we’ve inspired a new generation of kids to take STEM subjects that they wouldn’t have previously considered.  We were really pleased that this outreach programme was recognised when the project was shortlisted for the 2018 Airbus Diversity Awards.”

Making the Gromit Unleashed trail a virtual reality for hospitalised children

This summer Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Appeal partnered with engineering researchers to bring virtual reality into Bristol Children’s Hospital, helping patients unable to leave the hospital experience the award-winning sculpture trail.

a young patient tries the VR experience at Bristol Children’s Hospital

Hundreds of thousands of people from across the UK and overseas took part in Gromit Unleashed 2, the third arts trail from Bristol Children’s Hospital charity The Grand Appeal. There were 67 giant sculptures of Academy Award®-winning Aardman characters, Wallace, Gromit and Feathers McGraw – all designed and decorated by a local and high profile artists and brands, including Pixar Animations Studios and DreamWorks.

The ‘Gromit Unleashed 2 VR Experience’ was developed by Bristol Interaction Group, a research group in Engineering, and Large Visible Machine, an independent mobile platforms game studio.

PhD student Gareth Barnaby, who led the VR project, said: “It’s been a great experience to combine our technical expertise with the tireless enthusiasm of the people at The Grand Appeal to create a fun project to be deployed in the real world and brighten people’s days in hospital.

“As a PhD student, it can be hard to see where academia and the real world intersect. This project has shown the difference our work can make and the huge benefits technology can bring. Thanks to everyone at the University who has put in their time to make this project happen, and a huge thank you to The Grand Appeal for the hugely impactful work they do, and for the opportunity to be a part of it.”

Children with complex needs or those undergoing intense treatments, such as bone marrow transplants, are unable to leave hospital, so the University donated over 200 sets of Google Cardboard and two Google Pixel phones, for patients without access to a smart phone. Using the headsets, through virtual reality technology patients are transported to the streets of Bristol to see the sculptures up close and personal in a live setting with the use of 360 camera technology.

Nicola Masters, Director of The Grand Appeal said: “Bristol Children’s Hospital and the 100,000 patients it cares for each year sit at the heart of absolutely everything we do. Virtual Reality is a powerful tool, and what better way to harness this than to bring the trail to the bedsides of young patients who are too poorly to leave their bed or their ward. Taking part in such an immersive and interactive experience is having a brilliant impact not only on the child’s wellbeing, but also on their rehabilitation and recovery in hospitals.”