When in doubt, look to nature. It’s the creed of the biomimicry movement, and it’s not lost on blue-sky thinkers over at DARPA. Research carried out by MIT and the Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) is delivering to the DoD a robotic biped that will run faster than Usain Bolt--perhaps as fast as 50 miles an hour eventually. Presenting DARPA’s robo-ostrich.
The James Dyson Award winners for 2011 have been announced, and the grand prize winner is a piece of clever biomimicry that sits so perfectly in our wheelhouse that we couldn’t resist the urge to write about it. Edward Linacre of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne has tapped the Namib beetle--a desert dwelling species that survives in the most arid conditions on Earth--to create an irrigation system that can pull liquid moisture straight out of dry desert air.
Of all our human organs, skin is arguably one of the most abused — yet it’s also arguably the most reliable. It protects everything inside us, helping us avoid harm by sensing obstacles in our way, making sure we stay hydrated, and ensuring we keep ourselves at the right temperature. It constantly replenishes itself, sloughing off former layers that we’ve either burned or dried out or scraped or ignored, while new ones grow in their places.
Click here for a photo gallery of future skin technology for humans and machines.
Humans might be the most highly-evolved species on the planet, but most animals possess skills we can only dream of having. Imagine how much electricity we could save if we could see in the dark the way cats do. Imagine leaping from tree to tree like a monkey. Giraffes, which are otherwise calm and genteel, sleep only 4.6 hours a day (forget flying, how can I learn to do that?).
We realized a long, long time ago--centuries, perhaps even thousands of years before the publication of Popular Science, shocking as that sounds--that nature provides the best blueprint for invention. We've borrowed canals from beavers, towers from termites and reflectors from cat's eyes. More recently, George de Mestral patented Velcro in the 1940s after seeing how burrs stuck on the fur of his dog. Although the words "bionics," "biomimetics," and "biomimicry" became popular only after the 1960s, history shows that nature has always provided ideas on solving everyday problems. Our archives don't go back to the time of Leonardo da Vinci and his bird-like flying machines, but we can take you to the late 19th century, where we applied those same principles for building our first practical airplanes.
Humanoid robots and gadget-y autonomous machines can perform lots of tasks pretty admirably. But when you have a specific need, you need a specifically-equipped robot — which can mean making modifications to existing robot archetypes, or building a specialized ‘bot designed for a sole purpose. Welcome to the age of zoobotics, in which robots are inspired not by people, or restrained by technology like in the early days of robotics. Instead, zoobotics is animal-inspired.
Plenty of people are designing robots inspired by nature's designs, but most of them are rigid machines made of metal, plastic or polyester film. Fleet-footed robots or hoverbots are unable to bend and squish into tight spaces, but squirmy, agile ones like snakebots can't move very fast.
A new soft-bodied silicone robot aims to change that, squirming into tight spaces with ease and covering great distances quickly, flipping out like a caterpillar under siege.
Fire ants might be infuriating little beasts, an invasive species we'd all be pleased to see banished to its native Brazil, but it turns out a fire ant colony has some pretty amazing properties. In groups, they knit together, more like a fabric than anything else, and are waterproof, totally flexible, and nearly indestructible. A mechanical engineer describes these groups as behaving like a thick liquid.
By looking to the neural networks of spiders, crabs, lobsters, and worms, European researchers are building better gait-governing systems for robots. Mimicking the rhythmic nerve impulses of some invertebrates can create automatic, repetitive motions that help robots move more naturally and seamlessly, much like the organisms they emulate.
How exactly does one turn sunlight and water into usable energy? If it were possible to ask any living organism on Earth this question, you could do far better than asking a biologist or a chemist, or any other human being for that matter, and take the question directly to a leaf. That's the goal of biomimicry: to take human problems and ask nature "how would you solve this?" And increasingly, such questions are changing everything, from energy to information technology to the way we build cities.
A new lifelike seagull ‘bot is one of the most realistic bio-inspired flight machines we’ve seen. SmartBird takes off, flies and lands on its own, flapping its wings and turning its head and tail to steer. It is modeled on the herring gull and its appearance and movements are uncannily similar to the real thing.