Spotlight: The Benefits of Biomimicry

Millions of years of evolution have shaped organisms to survive and adapt to Earth in remarkable ways, and engineers have been taking note for centuries. Birds inspired human flight, and supercomputers are often tested against the power of brains, for instance.

Mother Nature continues to make her mark on modern engineering, and some researchers are looking to the smallest creatures, like insects, amoebas, and small sea creatures, to solve big problems. Read about a Harvard group that runs an army of termite-inspired robots, a University of Maryland lab interested in tiny, insect-like drones, and a Cornell researcher trying to understand how living creatures can create incredibly strong crystals.

Harvard’s Wyss Institute is a hotbed of biologically inspired engineering. Computer science graduate student Kirstin Petersen got involved in a Wyss and Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences project called TERMES,  three brick-sized robots that are programmed to build structures out of bricks that are roughly the same size. Petersen joined the lab in 2009, and creates the robots’ control and motion systems.

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Unlike nearly all other robot “armies” that have industrial uses, TERMES robots have no central command center that controls their every move and action, Petersen tells The Accelerator. Similarly, African termites can build tall, sturdy mounds with vast networks of underground tunnels, although each termite works on its own and does not keep tabs on what other workers are doing. Instead, Petersen said, they work in relation to one another, taking note of other termites’ location and actions and adjusting themselves accordingly. If part of the colony suffers a loss, the rest can keep doing their jobs, she added.

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The decentralized system makes it easy to scale up TERMES by adding more robots or maybe making them larger, Petersen said. Companies today typically control their robots with command centers, which creates a “bottleneck effect” of commands that can impair communication, Petersen says. And if the controller fails, the whole system goes down.

The TERMES method of control could be useful for companies that use robots to organize and transport goods — like in Amazon’s shipping and storage warehouses, Petersen said.

TERMES is one of several insect-inspired projects of Harvard’s Self-Organizing Systems Research Group.

The Autonomous Vehicles Laboratory at the University of Maryland – College Park is also obsessed with insects. The lab keeps a beehive, for instance, so it can study how bees can fly through strong wind gusts and get whipped around by the wind without sustaining injuries.

The goal is to make lightweight, inexpensive robots that harness an insect’s navigation capabilities, such as an insect’s compound eyes, ability to make sharp turns in the air, and somehow survive in strong wind gusts.

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According to a 2010 PhysOrg article, the group received a U.S. Department of Defense award totaling $1.48 million.

“These robots eventually could be used to help gain situational awareness in dangerous and uncertain environments, such as those encountered on the battlefield or during natural disasters,” according to the article.

Some of the robots are as small as insects as well. Although incorporating traditional engineering approaches is difficult at such a small scale, and maybe an area where nature triumphs.

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Tiny sea creatures inspired Cornell University materials science and engineering associate professor Lara Estroff’s research in crystalization. Mollusks, sea urchins, and corals are able to form hard, protective minerals made from materials like calcium carbonate. Sponges and single-celled algae, she said, can even form glass. Estroff was inspired by how these animals can control the way the crystals form — a phenomenon called biomineralization.

Nature is an expert at building crystals out of relatively cheap resources like calcium carbonate, she says.

Materials scientists often need high temperatures and pressures to make such materials in a lab, according to NPR. But sea creatures that make their own crystals can do so under relatively normal and stable environments, making them worth studying.

“We can start to understand what the important design features are, and then start to develop techniques in the lab that might be able to take some of those features out and replicate them,” Estroff said in the article.

Her research could help scientists find new ways to repair bone and teeth, or to grow crystals with optimal properties for industrial use. Estroff is conducting her research under a 2009 National Science Foundation Early Career Development award.

Estroff and Petersen both remark how difficult it can be to engineer something that nature has seemed to perfect already. The termites Petersen saw in Africa still amaze her.

“They’re centimeter-scale termites and they don’t have the mental capacity to solve higher problems, but they’re able to build these huge mounds. What’s more amazing is how to take these local individuals and make a global structure,” Petersen says.

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