Machine Counterpart: Nature’s New Creatures

The applications of bioinspired robots are as diverse as the animals on which they are based.

The translucent bell-shaped figure pumps rhythmically upward through the water, the rise and fall of its body almost identical to that of the moon jelly, Aurelia aurita. The similarity is no coincidence. The figure in the tank is a prototype of an unmanned undersea vehicle designed to run on hydrogen-powered artificial muscles. The wild A. aurita, because of its relatively simple musculature and swimming movements, was the ideal model for Robojelly’s design.

The hydrogen-powered Robojelly was described in March in the journal Smart Materials and Structures by its creators, a team of scientists based at Virginia Tech and the University of Texas at Dallas. The vehicle’s design—nickel-titanium shape memory alloy wrapped in carbon nanotubes coated with a platinum catalyst, all tucked neatly under a silicone-based mesoglea—is truly unique in the world of robotics. In principle, Robojelly could swim indefinitely, its artificial muscles powered by heat produced from the reaction of platinum with the renewable resource of oxygen and hydrogen gas in water.

But Robojelly as a machine that mimics animal movement is one of dozens. Indeed, in recent years, increasing numbers of bioinspired robots have flapped, crawled, and climbed their way into the scientific literature, all striving toward autonomy. That is the objective, after all, for the field of bioinspired robotics—to develop autonomous machines with the ability to traverse complex terrain. The catch, however, is to do so not by relying on the high-level, computer-controlled artificial intelligence of traditional robotics, but rather by mimicking the basic sensory mechanisms, biomechanics, muscle properties, and nervous system functions of animals.

This novel approach seems logical enough. However, as Case Western Reserve University professor of engineering Roger Quinn explained, “It was widely considered that because animals use different materials, actuators, sensors, and control systems than were possible in robotics, animal designs did not make sense for robotics.”

Add to that the deceptive nature of seemingly simple structures like insect antennae and legs—Quinn and Case Western Reserve biologist Roy E. Ritzmann pointed out in a paper in 2003 that even the leg of the lowly cockroach has at least seven degrees of freedom—and attempting to capture biology effectively or efficiently in robotic systems begins to look like an exercise in self defeat, rather than creative science.

But robotics has reached a turning point. Engineers have begun to look to biology—and to neurobiology in particular—for solutions. As Quinn noted, “It has now become apparent to most in the robotics community that the principles found in animal design and control can be applied to improve robot designs.”

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via Scientific American – Kara Rogers

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