Alan Wilson and the Structure & Motion Laboratory
Professor Alan Wilson BSc BVMS PhD MRCVS
I qualified in Veterinary Medicine and Surgery and with a BSc in Physiology from the University of Glasgow, despite spending much of my student career running competitively at international standard. During this time I became interested in the mechanics of athleticism and the limits to athletic performance, so undertook a PhD in tendon injury mechanisms at the University of Bristol.
My research has encompassed a range of subjects, from the study of individual muscle fibres and tendons, to whole animal locomotion, to how whole groups of animals work together. This has included species as diverse as humans, horses, greyhounds, ostriches, camels, wild dogs and cheetahs, geese and pigeons, with plans for others in the future.
Two key ideas
The way an animal moves, its strengths and its limitations are dictated by its structure – its anatomy (which in turn has evolved to produce the types of movement necessary for that particular species). This relationship is vital to an understanding of how animals (including man) move to hunt, to escape, to find food, to optimise its interactions with other animals and the territory it inhabits.
The increasing sophistication and miniaturisation of a wide range of technology makes it increasingly possible to measure animal movement in ways previously impossible, especially during natural, free ranging movement, rather than in the laboratory.
The importance of fieldwork
Although it is possible to study some aspects of whole animal locomotion in the laboratory, in order to explore social and environmental influences on locomotion, it is essential to go out to the animal’s natural habitat.
Much of my research is therefore conducted in the field, studying animals that move in a group, or in varied terrain and habitats. I am also beginning to look at how animals adapt for locomotion over long distances, such as during migrations.
Development of specialised instrumentation
The type of equipment needed to collect data from free-ranging animals, without impinging on the animal’s performance or lifestyle, is not available ‘off the shelf’.
My electronics team designs and produces equipment customised for animals of any size or type of activity. These data collection units (tags) which contain high-accuracy GPS and inertial measurement units have been deployed on birds as small as pigeons, sheep in Australia and the UK and cheetahs and wild dogs in Africa.
Pictured left: Electronics Design Engineer John Lowe working on tracking collars
In-house design for each species enables optimisation of size, weight and power efficiency which minimises the impact on the normal behaviour of the animal.
We also customise the tags for the environment and the expected weather. The equipment is remotely programmable and partially solar powered, so its settings can be changed to collect different data withoutthe need for human contact with the animal.
To find out more see Wildlife Tracking Collars.
The team are now working on aircraft and UAV (drone) based systems for data download and aerial filming. We own a Groppo Trail aircraft, which is being developed as an aerial research platform. It is very stable and quiet, even when flying slowly and at low altitude. This makes it ideal for filming animals and remotely collecting collar data. The newest tags are designed to steer an aircraft-mounted video camera to capture movement.
Implications of this work
The multidisciplinary nature of the work and the ability to develop new instrumentation is enabling us to collect data, analyse data and ask questions in ways not previously possible. This has major practical and financial implications for a wide range of fields including the conservation of wild animals, the livestock and racing industries as well as many aspects of human group and social dynamics.
I am Principal Investigator on a number of research projects:
CARDyAL.: Co-Operative Aerodynamics and Radio-based DYnamic Animal Localisation
CHEETAH – bio inspired robots
LOCATE: Locomotion, hunting and habitat utilisation among large African carnivores and their prey.
I have published papers demonstrating and validating innovative techniques for measurement of function during high speed locomotion and papers using these techniques to demonstrate basic biological mechanisms (five in Nature and more than 80 in other journals since 2001).
Developing young scientists
A significant part of my role as leader of the Structure & Motion Lab is to inspire, motivate and enable young scientists to pursue their own goals. The culture of the lab is to develop researchers who can go on to lead their own independent research groups, taking with them a sound training in scientific method and practice. This is achieved by developing the abilities of individuals within an environment of leading-edge capacity in areas as broad as signal processing to muscle physiology to theoretical mechanics. Interdisciplinary working is strongly encouraged and all members of the group and visitors are encouraged to integrate and participate as actively as possible.