Dinosaur racing at EPCC

Author: Nick Brown
Posted: 31 Jul 2013 | 14:49

The Animal Simulation project, run at the University of Manchester, aims to create realistic simulations of animals both present and extinct. By combining the expertise of a number of scientific fields along with high performance computing (HPC), they have created GaitSym, a code capable of realistically simulating movements of animals based on a 3D model of their skeleton and biological data.

The Manchester team has already used HECToR, the UK national supercomputing service, to simulate a number of different dinosaurs. Using detailed analyses of fossils, they have been able to figure out how these animals not only moved, but also their top speed when walking or running. It is a great illustration of how simulation has become the third methodology, complementing theory and experiment. Because dinosaurs have been extinct for so long there is very little one can do in terms of physical experimentation when it comes to researching their movement. But combining theory from a number of different fields - palaeontology, biology and also the physics of movement - results in a detailed and accurate computer model of these ancient creatures.

Here at Edinburgh, EPCC takes part in a number of outreach activities, the most prominent of which is when we visit different institutions, such as science festivals, to talk about HPC and the role it plays in the modern world. To help emphasise the point it is always useful to take along an interactive demo or two – and dinosaurs makes an excellent subject which interests all generations.

Using the work done by Manchester as a foundation, it is possible to allow people to configure their own dinosaurs (based upon a known working design), send these off to GaitSym running on HECToR and then, based upon the results of the simulation, race people’s different dinosaurs to see who can create the fastest one. Whilst you might think that it can’t be too hard to create a fast dinosaur, it is more difficult than it sounds – if you try to make it too fast, it will become unbalanced, fall over and never finish the race!

This project coincides with the PRACE Summer of HPC (SoHPC) programme, where students from institutions all over Europe visit HPC centres in other countries to work on a graphically-oriented HPC summer project. This dinosaur racing outreach demonstration made for an ideal application and for the next eight weeks further development is going to be done by Antoine Dewilde who comes from Belgium. He will be concentrating on improving the current prototype and turning it into a much more functional and polished product.

By the end of the SoHPC programme we hope to have a visually appealing demonstration where young and old alike can configure their own dinosaurs and then see how they would have performed in a race against each other millions of years ago. Because the overarching idea is to demonstrate the role of HPC in modern science, we can also use some of the metrics that can be gained from HECToR during a simulation, for example how much computing power it actually took to simulate somebody’s dinosaur.

We will post an update once the SoHPC programme is complete, and if you are interested in dinosaurs and HPC then come visit us at the British Science Festival in September!

You can read about the debut of the Virtual Palaeontology simulation at the British Science Festival in Nick's post here.


Nick Brown, EPCC


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