Uncrewed Systems Technology 046

20 A lthough he describes himself as more of a physicist than an engineer, Prof Alan Wilson has always loved building things. His recent repertoire includes multi-copter UAVs, a manned light aircraft and multiple sensing and tracking packages – all as tools in his quest to learn more about how animals move. Through this work, he has developed views on the strengths and weaknesses of UAVs as research tools, along with considerable insight into the technology of legged robots. He has also collaborated with robotics design company Boston Dynamics. The path to his current position at the nexus of biomechanics and robotics took him through studies of maths and sciences at school in his native Glasgow, Scotland, and international competition in middle- and long-distance running. Along the way, he also developed an enthusiasm for building model aeroplanes and electronic devices, as well as for what he calls “fiddling with mechanical stuff”. From this combination emerged a keen interest in physiology. “I was always on the mechanistic side of biology; that’s physiology,” he says. “I have an interest in how stuff works and an inherent confidence that I can make anything. Obviously that’s been proved wrong on a regular basis, but who doesn’t take the back off the TV and wonder why they’ve got a few bits left over afterwards? I’m a serial dismantler and re-assembler.” When the time came to go to university, also in Glasgow, he applied for engineering as well as veterinary degree courses, and the vets said yes, he recalls. The veterinary degree allows for an ‘intercalation’ year in which to study other sciences, so Wilson took a physiology degree along with courses in sports science and computer science, which included programming in Fortran 77, C and other languages. He immediately followed these with a PhD in orthopaedic biomechanics. Gauging bone “I spent a lot of time sticking strain gauges to bone and talking about implant design, sitting alongside engineers doing finite element modelling of bones, and measuring stuff,” he says. “Biology is a hard environment to measure in. Bone is highly anisotropic, bodies are full of salt and water, so implants corrode, and there’s the challenge of waterproofing electronics, particularly in moving bodies.” That was particularly important to his work in sport, including studies of greyhound and racehorse locomotion, for example. “Eventually, if you’re interested in sport, running, speed and athleticism, you really ought to look at the cheetah,” he says. The chance to work with cheetahs came through his mentor, the late Professor Craig Sharp. “Craig was one of these omni-competent people – he was a squash player, held the record for running up Mt Kilimanjaro, and was exercise physiologist for the British team for four Olympics,” he says. Decades earlier, in Kenya, he had Peter Donaldson discusses animal biomechanics and robotics with Alan Wilson, Professor of Locomotor Biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College, London Motion October/November 2022 | Uncrewed Systems Technology