Bug-Eye Camera, Fly Robot and other Bio-Inspired Tech
Incredible advancements in technology are coming from the imitation of nature, but engineers cannot yet attain animal performance.
Look like a bug: “New Camera Inspired by Insect Eyes,” announced Science Now. If you thought insects with their compound eyes had inferior vision to ours, think that no more:
An insect’s compound eye is an engineering marvel: high resolution, wide field of view, and incredible sensitivity to motion, all in a compact package. Now, a new digital camera provides the best-ever imitation of a bug’s vision, using new optical materials and techniques. This technology could someday give patrolling surveillance drones the same exquisite vision as a dragonfly on the hunt.
In the Illustra film Metamorphosis, Dr. Thomas Emmel notes that butterflies have better color vision than humans. They can see from infrared to ultraviolet. And in the Illustra film Darwin’s Dilemma, we see that compound eyes existed in the Cambrian multicellular animals, including trilobites and anomalocaridids.
According to PhysOrg, the new camera has an “unmatched field of view.” Part of the challenge for engineers at the University of Illinois was to develop flexible electronics and optics that could accommodate curved surfaces. Even so, their “low-end insect eye” mimic does not reach the performance of the design that inspired it:
Eyes in arthropods use compound designs, in which arrays of smaller eyes act together to provide image perception. Each small eye, known as an ommatidium, consists of a corneal lens, a crystalline cone and a light-sensitive organ at the base. The entire system is configured to provide exceptional properties in imaging, many of which lie beyond the reach of existing man-made cameras.
It would appear difficult to rephrase that paragraph in Darwinian terms, since it depends on the use of concepts like design, configuration, and exceptional properties. The project caught the attention of Nature, and Science Daily twice. The engineer’s paper was published in Nature, which noted that arthropods differ in the number of facets or ommatidia. Some ants have about 100 facets; praying mantises have about 15,000, while some dragonflies have up to 28,000. They ended by saying, “Biologically inspired schemes for adapting to different light levels are also of interest.”
Fly like a fly: A biomimetic robot that flies like a fly was reported in Science this week. It caught the attention of Nature and Science Daily. “RoboBee” doesn’t look anywhere near as sophisticated as an actual fly (and lacks digestive, neural, and reproductive systems), but Nature called it a “manufacturing marvel.” One of its designers said, “This is a major engineering breakthrough, 15 years in the making.” The little robot, weighing only 80 milligrams, has thin membranes for wings that it can flap 120 times a second, similar to a fly’s flapping rate (the engineers admitted it is only “modeled loosely on the morphology of flies”). Building a lightweight battery was one of the biggest challenges, so they had to tether it to a power source and computer with thin wire. Still, it’s “pretty fantastically cool,” an observer said for Science Now.
The engineering team faced many challenges. For instance, if the wings weren’t exactly symmetrical, it failed to fly. It “took many rounds of tweaking the design before it finally worked,” but when the team had their “Kitty Hawk moment,” they were really proud. RoboBee can only fly for 20 seconds, and wears out after 15 minutes of use. But it’s “the smallest flapping wing aircraft that has ever been built and made fully functional,” they said. The goal is to get the power supply, flight control computer and everything else on board. They envision making swarms of these robots for search and rescue. “When you scale things down, smaller is better,” they said. That speaks volumes about the actual living fly, which not only has everything on board, but also contains digestive, neural, and reproductive systems. A fly or bee is comparatively large for insects, too (consider gnats and mosquitoes, for instance). Recently, a microscopic fairyfly dubbed Tinkerbella nana was discovered with a body length of 155 micrometers (see Science Daily for picture). That’s packing a lot of systems into a very tiny space.
Sea horse armor: In other biomimetics news, scientists at UC San Diego have their eyes on seahorses for ideas. According to Science Daily, “Sea horses get their exceptional flexibility from the structure of their bony plates, which form its armor.” The plates slide past each other. The plates can be compressed to half their size without damage. The principle behind the UCSD project is broader than one particular animal:
“The study of natural materials can lead to the creation of new and unique materials and structures inspired by nature that are stronger, tougher, lighter and more flexible,” said [Joanna] McKittrick, a professor of materials science at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego.
McKittrick and Meyers had sought bioinsipiration [sic] by examining the armor of many other animals, including armadillo, alligators and the scales of various fish. This time, they were specifically looking for an animal that was flexible enough to develop a design for a robotic arm.
Mr. Clean cicada: The 17-year locusts are emerging from hibernation in some parts of the south this year. Live Science reported on work to understand how the bugs can stay so clean. They don’t need to stand in the rain; the structure of their exoskeleton allows the bugs to be self-cleaning, researchers at Duke University have found. “Apparently, grime can simply leap right off them, given dew.” When dewdrops merge together, they literally leap off the bugs, carrying grime with them. This also happens on lotus leaves and other “super-hydrophobic” surfaces.
These findings not only can help explain the mystery of how cicada wings keep clean, but could also lead to improved artificial self-cleaning materials. Jumping droplets could also help remove heat from power plants, Chen said.
Protein origami: Science Magazine published a paper about the use of proteins for self-assembling materials. A “Perspective” piece in the same issue about the project said that synthetic biology “aims to push natural biological systems in novel directions or to generate biomimetic systems with new properties.” The team from University of Bristol learned how to control the self-assembly of proteins to generate simple “cages” and patterns out of coiled-coil elements of proteins. “The assembly properties of the peptides are governed by how their folding results in the projection of chemical functional groups into space.”
Short bows: Nature mentioned the “worm-inspired adhesive” that came from following how a spiny-headed worm embeds itself in the tissues of its host. A bandage built on the principle is “more than three times as adhesive as surgical staples for affixing skin grafts.” Live Science posted “Seven Clever Technologies Inspired by Animals.” Entrants include butterflies, sharks, worms, cockleburs, beetles, geckos, and spiders.
As usual, evolution was useless in all these stories. It was only mentioned occasionally as an ideologically-driven afterthought, such as “Nature has developed and refined these concepts over the course of billions of years of evolution” (PhysOrg). Nature is not a developer! Nature is not a refiner. Nature knows nothing of concepts. Those are terms from intelligent design. The Nature paper on the compound eye begins, “In arthropods, evolution has created a remarkably sophisticated class of imaging systems, with a wide-angle field of view, low aberrations, high acuity to motion and an infinite depth of field,” but then says nothing further about evolution. Evolution is not a creator! Evolution does not design sophisticated imaging systems with desirable properties! Tanya Lewis at Live Science dreamed, “Over time, evolution has led to some incredible developments, from the photosynthetic machinery in plants to the human eye.” She needs to awake from her dogmatic Darwinian slumbers.
The lingo that predominates in biomimetics is design, inspiration, exceptional performance. Darwinians, pack up your snake oil wagons and get out of the way of this new, popular I.D. parade.