December 30, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Robot Designers Strive to Match Animals

Engineers feel great satisfaction when their robots can match just some of the feats of animals.  What does that say about the design of the animals?

  1. It’s a bird, it’s a plane:  The first “hummingbird robot” was unveiled by Japanese researcher Hiroshi Liu (Chiba University) in a press release published by PhysOrg.  The hand-sized device flaps its wings 30 times per second and can turn up, down, right or left, and fly a figure eight.  Its researchers, who spent the equivalent of $2.1 million dollars developing it, hope to use it to locate victims in trapped buildings or find criminals.  It’s clear they found nature inspiring: “First, we need to learn about effective mechanism from natural life forms, but we want to develop something to go beyond nature eventually,” Liu said.  See also our report about efforts to mimic hummingbird flight at the University of Buffalo (12/16/2009, bullet 2).
        The real bird still has some superior capabilities.  It can hover in place and see.  The robot designers hope to mimic hovering ability and add a camera in the next 15 months.  If they can get it to lay eggs and hatch baby robots, they’ll really be onto something.
  2. It’s a roach, it’s a rescuer:  Disgust is the reaction of most people to cockroaches.  Robot designers, though, stand in awe of them.  According to Science Daily, researchers at Oregon State are taking “bioinspiration” from the despised bugs in an effort to mimic their abilities.  “Cockroaches are incredible,” said John Schmitt, a professor of mechanical engineering at OSU.  “They can run fast, turn on a dime, move easily over rough terrain, and react to perturbations faster than a nerve impulse can travel.”
        This raises a question of how their movements are controlled.  According to Schmitt, “cockroaches don’t even have to think about running – they just do it, with muscle action that is instinctive and doesn’t require reflex control.”  Something, though, must be coordinating the motions of its six legs.  Whatever happens, the robot designers would like to imitate that trick.  The technology might find application in “military operations, law enforcement or space exploration” (but hopefully not in restaurant kitchens). 
        Schmitt had more to say about the wonder of cockroach scurrying.  “A cockroach doesn’t think much about running, it just runs.  And it only slows down about 20 percent when going over blocks that are three times higher than its hipsThat’s just remarkable, and an indication that their stability has to do with how they are built, rather than how they react.”
  3. Guinea henny penny.  The previous article on Science Daily jumped from cockroaches to chickens.  The article had this to say about guinea hens:

    The OSU researchers are trying to identify some of the basic biological and mechanical principles that allow certain animals to run so well and effortlessly.  A guinea hen, for instance, can change the length and angle of its spring-like legs to almost automatically adjust to an unexpected change in a ground surface as much as 40 percent of its hip height.  That would be like a human running at full speed, stepping into a 16-inch-deep hole and never missing a beat.

Robots built on these principles could be used to venture into dangerous places, rove the planet Mars, perform aerial reconnaissance and many other things.  The resulting control technologies might also find their way into improved prosthetic devices and materials.
    By funding efforts to imitate the feats of animals to the tune of millions of dollars, and by setting up research departments based on “bioinspiration,” scientists and engineers are tacitly admitting that the design specs in the living world are of such high quality they deserve to be imitated.

In all the biomimetics stories we have reported over the years, the researchers generally express awe and amazement at what animals and plants can do.  They don’t say, “what a sloppy design; we human designers can do much better.”  Instead, the attitude is usually a humble spirit of wonder at how easy “nature” conquers difficult tasks.  References to evolution in such articles are typically very short and stupid, like “clever solutions that emerged in the course of evolution” (12/16/2009).
    There’s nothing like imitation to teach a person the difficulty in a task.  A music critic can disdain a performance until he or she tries to compose or perform a piece.  A baseball fan can lambaste a pitcher from the stands till he tries to pitch a 90mph fastball against a skilled batter.  It’s easier to complain about the food than to cook it.  Biomimetics has opened up a whole new crowd of potential intelligent design advocates, by having them go to the lab and try to duplicate the feats nature performs so effortlessly.  This might be good therapy for atheists.  Have them go into the lab and try to build a living cell from scratch with their own dirt.

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