Bionics looks to nature’s designs as inspirations for what we engineer and it holds huge potential for future technologies. It’s based on the idea that evolution has already done the experimental work behind optimization. Whether it’s the texture of a seed pod, the movement of a spider, or the way a group of bees interacts, natural selection has chosen what works best for certain environments or challenges. Humans just need to take these natural designs and adapt them for our purposes. A bionic technology found in our everyday lives has its origins in 1941, when a hunting trip left George de Mestral’s dog (and socks) coated with burdock burrs. The Swiss engineer examined the seeds under a microscope, and saw how their hook-covered surfaces let them hitch a ride on animal fur. He was then able to artificially manufacture a similarly sticky material, using the burr’s hook design. The result? Velcro.
More recently, bionics has been applied towards creating robots inspired by animal motion. There’s increasing demand for robots that can explore harsh terrains or perform difficult tasks that certain animal adaptations are well suited for.
Festo, a German pneumatic and electric automation company, has a Bionic Learning Network program dedicated to creating incredibly accurate bionic robots. These robots adapt the best of naturally occurring movement and functionality into machines. For example, Festo’s 2011 SmartBird is a flying robot modeled after the herring gull. Its silver, one meter wings flap and twist to generate lift in the same way as the gull is able to take off, soar, and land with surprising grace without extra propulsion. Festo’s BionicKangaroo mimics the jumps of its animal counterpart as well, albeit with jerkier motion. And like a kangaroo, the robot can also store energy from each jump to use for the next, improving its efficiency. Boston Dynamics is another design and robotics company known for creating agile bionic robots. BigDog, its four-legged robot once funded by DARPA, has articulated joints and the capability reabsorb energy from its steps. It is capable of maneuvering complex terrains impossible for most robots, from snowbanks and iced pavement to steep inclines and brick piles, and all while carrying up to 150 kg.
Whether it’s the texture of a seed pod, the movement of a spider, or the way a group of bees interacts, natural selection has chosen what works best for certain environments or challenges.
However, perhaps one of the most unique bionic robots is Tabbot, inspired by the spider Cebrennus rechenbergi. C. rechenbergi, or the Moroccan flic-flac spider, was discovered in the Erg Chebbi desert in 2009 by Ingo Rechenberg, the head of the Department of Bionics and Evolution Techniques at the Technical University of Berlin. When threatened, the arachnid can cartwheel away from danger, head over all eight heels. This adaptation allows the spider to escape over sand dunes at twice its normal walking speed. Its capability for efficient movement in sandy terrain led Rechenberg to develop a robotic model called Tabbot, the Berber word for “spider.” A wired plastic and metal contraption built around a Reuleaux triangle, Tabbot uses handle-like limbs to push itself in a cartwheeling motion. Although it’s hardly a perfect replica – lacking the speed of its biological counterpart – Tabbot is able to move easily across desert sands that are treacherous to standard wheels.
As Rechenberg noted, “This robot may be employed in agriculture, on the ocean floor, or even on Mars.”
On these terrains, traditional wheeled robots can become mired down in sand, as happened with the Mars exploration rover Spirit in 2009. This situation could be avoided with bionic robots, like the Tabbot, which are modeled on the organisms that inhabit Earth’s deserts. Adapting the motion of C. rechenbergi and other animals into robotic design is key to expanding the possibilities of robot mobility and the types surfaces that we can explore.
There is great potential for new bionic materials and structures, and lots of further research and development left for current creations like Tabbot. Other bionic designs also continue to push the limits of what we can adapt from nature, from Harvard professor Daniel Nocera’s artificial photosynthesis to Danish company Aquaporin’s water filtration with biological membranes. And beyond physical texture or movement, systems and interactions in nature are also being used to optimize performance: at Regen Energy, electrical grid networks are organized based on bee colony interaction to maximize efficiency. The ways we use bionics to create future technologies are only increasing and diversifying. And no matter how far those technologies take us, whether to Mars or beyond, we’ll still have a lot to learn from the life on our planet.