Research in the Hedrick lab focuses on how animals produce and control movement. This expands out into a broader interest in the structure and properties of biological networks as well as how they generate robust outputs in the face of uncertain circumstances and components of varying quality. For example, the flight of the sphingid moth Manduca sexta is enabled by a complex, hierarchical biological system that involves processes and components at several different levels: the nervous system of the moth activates a suite of 20 flight muscles which actuate mechanical structures (the wings) that do work on the surrounding fluid (air), generating forces to support and propel the moth. This complex, interconnected system of components results in stable, predictable flight in an uncertain environment yet is also capable of generating controlled instabilities on demand for purposes of maneuvering within the environment. Furthermore, the degree of interconnectedness in the network is such that studying the function of individual components such as the wings or the visual system does not allow accurate prediction of the behavior of the whole organism. Current efforts center around the application of engineering control theory to biological networks to better understand how the properties of the network and components work together to generate behavior that is both stable, flexible and robust to unexpected perturbations.
In a more general sense, the lab examines animal flight aerodynamics and flight behavior across the breadth of flying organisms, from tiny parasitic wasps to fruit flies to large birds and bats. Rapid progress has been made in these areas, with important discoveries made in the unsteady aerodynamic mechanisms that support flying insects, extension of these mechanisms to larger flying animals, and even construction of animal scale micro-aerial vehicles that allow exploration of biological flight phenomena with wholly human designed systems. Current frontiers of animal flight include understanding the effects of material flexibility (insect and bat wings) and complex multi-scale organization (bird wings) on aerodynamics and on the integration of sensory and neural control models with flight dynamics.