January 16, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Make Like a Snake

Here are a few more examples illustrating why the imitation of nature is one of the hottest trends in science.

Make Like a Snake

Snakes typically crawl with a side-to-side wiggling motion. Can a snake crawl through a tunnel? “University of Cincinnati biologist Bruce Jayne studied the mechanics of snake movement to understand exactly how they can propel themselves forward like a train through a tunnel,” reports Science Daily. It was that curiosity that led to the headline, “Snake research could advance robotics to move through narrow tunnels after a disaster.” Curiosity – Observation of design – Imitation of design. That seemed to be Jayne’s reasoning process. What he found was a new superpower in nature that inspires imitation.

Snakes are known for their iconic S-shaped movements. But they have a less noticeable skill that gives them a unique superpower.

Snakes can crawl in a straight line.

Straight-line or ‘rectilinear’ motion has been observed, but not studied in detail till now.

When the snake inches forward, the skin on its belly flexes far more than the skin over its ribcage and back. The belly scales act like treads on a tire, providing traction with the ground as the muscles pull the snake’s internal skeleture forward in an undulating pattern that becomes fluid and seamless when they move quickly.

The snake’s muscles are sequentially activated from the head toward the tail in a remarkably fluid and seamless way.

Readers can ignore the superfluous Darwinese that asserts dogmatically, “Snakes evolved from burrowing ancestors.” What follows is Lamarckian, anyway. Jayne’s colleague Steven Newman claims that since straight-line movement is efficient for burrowing ancestors, it must have evolved. Funny that slithering in a straight line didn’t happen with gophers or badgers.

What’s more important is the inspiration for future intelligent design research: “Newman said robots that can harness a snake’s rectilinear motion could have profound applications.” Jayne and Newman both seem more fascinated by the observations of “amazing contortions” these animals can make. They have 4 modes of locomotion: serpentine, concertina, sidewinding and rectilinear.

They move in so many fascinating ways. Is that because they have such an incredible diversity of motor patterns that the nervous system can generate?” he said.

“Even though all snakes have the same body plan, there are fully aquatic snakes, snakes that move on flat surfaces, snakes that move in a horizontal plane, snakes that climb. They go everywhere,” he said. “And the reason they can go everywhere is they have so many different ways of controlling their muscles. That’s pretty intriguing.

Make Like a Stingray

More inspiration for robotics comes from an unlikely source: the stingray. Phys.org reports happenings in UCLA labs:

UCLA bioengineering professor Ali Khademhosseini has led the development of a tissue-based soft robot that mimics the biomechanics of a stingray. The new technology could lead to advances in bio-inspired robotics, regenerative medicine and medical diagnostics.

What caught the professor’s attention was the simple body design of these graceful swimmers. But the outward simplicity is deceptive; underneath are muscles, nerves, and all the other requirements for life. Khademhosseini ‘s soft robot is a very cheap imitation that cheats by borrowing some of the ray’s own cells:

The 10-millimeter long robot is made up of four layers: tissue composed of live heart cells, two distinct types of specialized biomaterials for structural support, and flexible electrodes. Imitating nature, the robotic stingray is even able to “flap” its fins when the electrodes contract the heart cells on the biomaterial scaffold.

Even so, he says, “The development of such bioinspired systems could enable future robotics that contain both biological tissues and electronic systems.”

Make Like a Bird

Fixed-wing aircraft are crude compared to the flexible, dynamic wings of a bird. Korean engineers are playing catch-up, testing prototypes of aerial vehicles that can fly freely with independently-controlled wings. Before announcing their latest development, they first criticize today’s planes and helicopters in Science Dailys coverage:

Aerial vehicles in a typical category have main wings fixed to the body (fuselage) in an integrated form. Shape of main wings, namely airfoil, produces lift force, thanks to aerodynamic interaction with air, and achieves commensurate energy efficiency. Yet, it is difficult for them to make agile movements due to the large turn radius. Banking the aerial vehicle that accounts for eventual turn comes from the adjustment of small ailerons mounted on the trailing edge of the wings.

Aerial vehicles in another typical category gain thrust power by rotating multiple propellers. They can make agile movements by changing speed of motors rotating the propellers. For instance, pitch (movement up and down along vertical axis) down for moving forward with quadcopters is executed by increased speed of two rear rotors and unchanged or decreased speed of two front rotors. Rotor represents revolving part of motor. However, they are even less energy-efficient, owing to the absence of lift force created by wings.

Could you get both benefits in one craft? Yes, by making like a bird. Although discussion of the new “Nsphere drone” with independently-controlled wings doesn’t mention birds, the connection is obvious. This new drone achieves new levels of “energy efficiency, swiftness and speed” beyond current aircraft designs (think falcons). You might see something like it delivering your future Amazon.com packages, they say. Not carrier pigeons?

Make a Muscle

National Geographic reports on progress in making “artificial muscles” that act more like real muscles, and are becoming cheaper to manufacture. “Turning to nature, the University of Colorado Boulder scientists set out to engineer a lifelike muscle that was cheap, flexible, and strong.” Their product takes inspiration from the hummingbird, the elephant, and the octopus. While they want to make soft robots that are more lifelike, the test products have nowhere near the complexity of living muscle. They can just move under the intelligent direction of engineers.

Give Biomimetics the Seal of Approval

In a final case, Phys.org reports that Korean scientists have used 3-D printing to imitate the whiskers of pinnipeds, a group of semi-aquatic mammals that includes seals and sea lions. As we shared 12/08/17, sea lions have “unique whiskers that help them catch even the fastest fish” (The Conversation). These whiskers—the longest of any animal—inspired the scientists to use them to make an underwater vortex sensor that uses “soft robotics” technology.

“This paper is a wonderful example of bioinspired soft robotics. The authors have used observations of a natural system to build a materials-based sensor that can be used on underwater robots for better positional control, navigation, and object detection,” says Editor-in-Chief Barry A. Trimmer, PhD, who directs the Neuromechanics and Biomimetic Devices Laboratory at Tufts University (Medford, MA).

The new sensor gathers analog data from the artificial whiskers, then digitizes it for a microcontroller.

Support biomimetics. It’s improving the world in countless ways. Let’s rid the world once for all of scientifically useless Darwinian storytelling, with all its evil baggage. The science of the future is here by imitating nature’s superlative designs.




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