Alan Wilson and the Structure & Motion Laboratory
Professor Alan Wilson BSc BVMS PhD MRCVS
Alan qualified in Veterinary Medicine and Surgery and with a BSc in Physiology from the University of Glasgow. Much of his student career was spent running competitively at international standard. It was during this time that he developed an interest in the mechanics of athleticism and the limits to athletic performance. A PhD at the University of Bristol in tendon injury mechanisms followed. His external examiner was Robert McNeill-Alexander, a pioneer and world-leading scientist in the field of animal biomechanics.
Alan’s 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, with plans for others in the future.
The Structure & Motion Laboratory – a multidisciplinary unit
Founded and led by Alan Wilson, this multidisciplinary unit now comprises around 50 scientists and support staff. These include vets, physiologists, biologists, palaeontologists, engineers and computer scientists; with technicians, an electronics team, and a project manager. There are faculty members in the lab with their own research groups and between them there is considerable interaction, integration and collaboration. The team is based in a single building and a modern laboratory at the RVC's Hertfordshire campus using state-of-the-art facilities, many of which are unique and have been developed by the team themselves.
The purpose of the SML is to address fundamental questions relating to how and why animals are structured and move as they do, how movement is controlled and how performance is delivered or limited. This is achieved using a combination of anatomical measurements, imaging, experiential work and computer modelling. The group works with a wide range of animals, from horses, dogs and humans to dinosaurs, elephants, cheetahs, insects, fish and birds.
Two key ideas
Alan Wilson's research is based on two key premises:
- 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.
With his background of veterinary science, anatomy, physiology and technology, Alan has understood that a combination of these two ideas would be key to solving a wide range of problems related to animal movement.
The strengths of a multi-disciplinary approach
Because of the wide range of knowledge and expertise available within the SML – multifaceted approaches can yield a much more comprehensive picture of complex problems. For instance, a current project investigating the cheetah involves expertise in electronic tracking collar design, high-speed video and fibre-level muscle physiology.
The importance of fieldwork
Although it is possible to study some aspects of whole animal locomotion in the laboratory, in order to explore the social and environmental influences on locomotion, it is essential to go out to the animal’s natural habitat. Much of Alan’s research is therefore conducted in the field, studying animals that move in a group, or in varied terrain and habitats. He is also beginning to look at how animals adapt for locomotion over long distances, such as during migrations.
Alan’s experience with field work began when undertaking survey research in Iceland in 1981 on a British Schools Exploring Society (BSES) expedition. In 1987 he undertook a scientific expedition to Papua New Guinea as leader of a group of students undertaking ornithology research in the rainforest canopy. In 1991 he led a party of 30 on a three month BSES expedition to the Okavango Delta of Botswana. Work included a detailed survey of Gcwihaba Caves, ground survey, geomorphology and wildlife related work. He has organised and led mountaineering trips in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru and treks through India, Papua New Guinea and the USA. He also served for seven years as an officer in the Royal Marines Reserves.
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’. Over the last ten years Alan has used advances in microelectronics to design ever more sophisticated systems to mount on animals. An in-house electronics team enables the design and production of 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. In-house design for each species minimises the impact on the normal behaviour of the animal and allows for optimisation of size, weight and power efficiency (Pictured left: Electronics Design Engineer John Lowe working on tracking collars). It is also necessary to customise the tags for the environment and the expected weather. Because the equipment is remotely programmable and partially solar powered, it is possible to reconfigure the units to collect different data and reduce the need for human contact with the animal.
The team are now working on aircraft and UAV (drone) based systems for data download and aerial filming.
The group owns 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.
New technology demands new techniques – new techniques demand new concepts
The data collection technologies developed by Alan and his team are capable of collecting very detailed data in quantities vastly in excess of traditional methods. These require novel statistical approaches and analysis to inform the sampling rate and data collection settings. To apply cutting edge techniques in this area, Alan collaborates with the Dept of Computer Science at UCL, working with Stephen Hailes, Professor of Wireless Network Systems, and John Shawe-Taylor, Professor of Machine Learning. The huge data volumes can be analysed by computer algorithms that are “trained” to identify the patterns or characteristics the researchers are seeking.
An ethical approach
In all their research, Alan’s team are very aware of the need to minimise any risk or stress to animals – indeed stress could alter the very behaviours they seek to measure. Consequently they work closely with the RVC’s own ethics review panel and with the UK Home Office (who regulate animal work in the UK) to make sure the work they undertake has secure ethical boundaries.
What are the implications of this work?
The multidisciplinary nature of the work and the ability to develop new instrumentation is enabling the team 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.
Leadership in science
A significant part of Alan’s 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.
Alan has also contributed to the wider development of research by serving on the Animal Science Panel and Committee A of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Committee – major funders of biological research in the UK. He served on the Council of the British Schools Exploring Society for five years, developing challenging scientific expeditions for young scientists and selecting participants. He also served on the Royal Society Newton Fellowships Panel which funds promising young scientists to come to the UK. He was biomechanics convener for the Society of Experimental Biology and is still a member of the biomechanics committee. He is a Director of the Company of Biologists – this organisation publishes a number of journals, including the Journal of Experimental Biology and also awards travel grants to young scientists. Alan currently serves on the editorial board of Biology Letters and the Journal of Experimental Biology.
Alan has held a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award and a BBSRC Research Development Fellowship.
As part of their commitment to wide communication of their research, most members take part in engagement and outreach activities, ranging from blogs to presenting at school science events, contributing to public exhibitions as well as television and radio programmes. The group has an ongoing programme of public engagement activities.
Above: School students finding out about research
Current research projects
Alan is Principal Investigator on a number of research projects:
CARDyAL: Co-Operative Aerodynamics and Radio-based DYnamic Animal Localisation
The CARDyAL project opens up a new field of collaborative research. It combines the development of novel, lightweight sensor tag technology capable of measuring the fine detail of the movement of individuals within a group (previously not possible), with the development of analytical methods capable of extracting meaningful results from the mass of raw data thus obtained.
These developments are then tested in the real world by studies involving flocks of sheep in the UK, packs of wild dogs in Africa, flocks of pigeons and migratory Ibis.
This work has implications for disease control, animal conservation, food animal management and a number of other fields.
For more information see CARDyAL.
CHEETAH – bio inspired robots
Robot designers look to nature for inspiration for the design of dynamic free ranging and legged robots. One company in particular, Boston Dynamics, is leading the field with their range of innovative robots, including CHEETAH, the world’s fastest legged robot.
Alan’s role in the CHEETAH project is to discover and translate the mechanics of cheetah locomotion into engineering principles that can be used by robot designers. By understanding the basic principles of how animals run, remain stable and use their muscles, it should be possible to make legged robots that are faster, more capable on varied terrain and more economical.
Studying cheetahs from several sources – including the wild – high-speed video cameras and motion sensors (attached to collars) are used to provide data that can be used in the design of the robots.
For more information see CHEETAH Robot.
Dynamics and Energetics of Hunting in the Cheetah
Although it is known that cheetahs can sprint at 65 miles an hour as well as manoeuvre at high speed, the anatomical and physiological mechanisms for this performance are not known. This project will use collar mounted sensor tags (which combine GPS, acceleration sensors, gyroscopes and a compass) on wild cheetahs to obtain highly detailed information on footfall pattern, type of activity, and other details. Cheetah hunts will be also filmed from the ground and air (with Alan’s customised aeroplane). Muscle studies will complement the locomotion studies.
For more information see High speed galloping in cheetahs and racing greyhounds.
Alan has 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 (three in Nature and 62 in other journals since 2001).