March 15, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Follow the Insects

Science has good reason to study insects – not just because they are the most numerous and diverse animals on the planet.  They know some tricks we would do well to emulate.  Robot designers are taking the lead on following insects.

  1. Print a fly:  New printers are allowing inventors to print the paper-thin wings they need to design insect-mimicking robots.  Live Science told about how the technology is providing shortcuts for robot designers, because “Production of an untethered, flapping-hovering machine itself is very challenging, and only a few have been made successfully to date.”  Hod Lipson, robot inventor at Cornell, shared that much remains to be learned about how flapping wings work: “One reason that so few flapping-hovering machines have been demonstrated is that they are very difficult to design, laborious to make, and challenging to stabilize.”  They must be in awe of the tiny gnat.
  2. Feed a bat:  Designers at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, have invented a robo-moth they are using to study bat sonar.  The BBC News told how they tested their electronic bug with continuous-emitting bats, and found that the flying mammals are able to differentiate between fluttering and stationary objects.  The article, which includes a 3-second video clip, did not say if any bats choked on the food.
  3. Walk the walls:  It’s not just the flying that tantalizes inventors about insects; it’s also their feet.  New Scientist described how researchers at Tongji University in China studied the sticky feet of insects “to create the next generation of climbing robots.”  Insects squirt a sticky fluid that creates suction with walls and ceilings.  Minghe Li used a mixture of honey and water onto pads of his robot, but it didn’t work right till he discovered and imitated the tiny grooves on insect feet.
        The article also mentioned work on gecko feet.  The designers working on gecko mimics have problems replicating the flexibility of their nanoscopic hairs.  The human-designed carbon nanotubes stiffen when made short.  Minghe Li envisions a day when “combining the adhesion methods of insects and geckos could one day lead to the ultimate sticking machine.”

Monarch butterflies are on the move, reported Live Science.  Thankfully, their numbers are rebounding from an all-time low in the 2009-2010 season.  “It takes the butterflies about four generations – four cycles of mating, egg-laying and hatching – to reach the northern extent of their migration in the upper United States and Canada,” the article said.  “There, ahead of the approaching autumn weather, a bizarrely long-lived ‘super generation’ is hatched and makes the long flight all the way back to the forests of Mexico to live out the colder months in a quiet stupor, clinging to the trees before heading for Texas to mate and lay eggs come springtime.”
    The remarkable life cycle of butterflies, and the epic migrations made by monarchs, will be showcased in stunning color, sound, and science in the upcoming film Metamorphosis from Illustra Media.  Its producers expect the case for intelligent design to be powerfully augmented when added to its predecessors that explored the cell (Unlocking the Mystery of Life), the universe (The Privileged Planet), and the fossil record (Darwin’s Dilemma).  A preview trailer of the film, being released this summer in high-def on Blu-Ray, is available on the Illustra site.

The only article that mentioned evolution was the BBC story about robo-moths and bats.  Even then, it was only about minor changes between bats that are intermittent and continuous callers.  “He [Dr. Brock Fenton] suggests that bats could have evolved the radar-like echolocation strategy to improve their chances of catching more nutritious insect prey.”  That statement, of course, flies in the face of neo-Darwinian theory, that seeks to exclude teleological causes.  To be completely impartial, Dr. Brock should have also examined the possibility that intermittent emitters devolved from continuous callers.
    But why even mention evolution?  It was certainly not germane to any of the stories.  Biomimetics is design-focused: what can we learn from living things, and how can we apply it?  As shown once more, this is one of the most productive and exciting trends in 21st-century science.  And as the new film Metamorphosis will show, Darwinism is hopelessly inadequate to explain the origin of the amazing design features of insects.

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