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Nature inspired robotic innovation

Published: 
Monday, January 20, 2014
Science and Society

In another dimension, one could hardly be faulted for coming to the conclusion that Nature/God must be a multidisciplinary engineer of extraordinary abilities. A cursory inspection of the properties and mechanisms of the animals that inhabit earth would excite even the most dour and analytic. Small wonder then, insects, birds and animals are being filmed and analysed with a view to provide insight and direction for the design of devices, machines and systems. 

 

Roboticists have been studying the materials, bones and functional structures and movements of insects and birds, for inspiration to design innovative flying/flapping robots. The idea here is to have novel, lightweight materials and low-energy-usage actuation mechanisms. 

 

So the gliding and flying processes are of particular interest. It makes sense to draw upon the millions of years of evolutionary experience of nature. Insects have been around for some 400 million years while birds have some 150 million years of cumulative flapping and soaring experience. 

 

 

This field is called biomimetics or bio-mimicry, and there are several active R&D programmes worldwide. There have been several outstanding successes. The Chou Chou robotic butterfly is truly amazing. It looks and behaves like an actual living butterfly. 

 

 

Most projects, however, are being pursued with commercial and security interests in mind as there is a growing need for using small or micro flying/flapping aircraft for applications that include air-quality monitoring, traffic, surveillance, search and rescue and of course, reconnaissance missions. At Harvard, bumblebees are being studied to determine how they cope with changing weather conditions in order to inform the design of micro-air vehicles that remain stable in bad weather.

 

 

Festo (an engineering company) has designed and tested a robotic seagull that not only looks very similar to a real one but also mimics its flying and hence it is difficult, from a distance, to differentiate between the robot and the real thing. It weighs 450 grams (approximately one pound) and has a wing span of nearly six and a half feet. It can take off, fly and land autonomously.

 

Many ornithopters (aircrafts whose flight is propelled by flapping wings/mechanisms, unlike helicopters which use rotating blades) mimic the way insects fly, but suffer from stability problems, and hence have a tendency to flip over. The search is on for simple and lightweight controls systems, preferably of the passive type, to allow for effective use of these devices. 

 

In the Harvard study, it was found that the bumblebees use full body movements to ensure stability. A novel approach has emerged from New York University. Here the ornithopter design mimics the way jellyfish swim. 

 

 

It should be pointed out that water and air are both fluidic in nature, with water having a greater viscosity. Viscosity is the tendency to resist flow and hence also provides greater resistance to objects moving in the fluid. Also, water provides greater buoyancy than air (that is why we can swim but not fly). The NYU prototype has four distinct flapping wings and is stable. It thus has good potential for evolving into a small-scale flapping-wing aircraft with significant commercial promise.

 

The development and utilisation of smart small and micro devices point to the distinct possibility that, in the not-too-distant future, such devices may very well become as ubiquitous as vehicles. This might negatively affect privacy and safety but have a positive impact on information gathering. Indeed such robots, properly instrumented, can continuously measure and transmit the level of air pollution in high traffic areas like the East-West Corridor. A fundamental question arises. 

 

As a country, are we preparing ourselves to harvest the benefits and reduce the negative consequences of new and emerging technologies?