Robotics and Biomimetics: A collaboration of the future

Solar forest designed by Neville Mars. Photo taken from bURB

Biomimetics is a growing discipline, where engineers and designers ask themselves how nature would solve a problem before opting to find a solution. Janine Benyus, who has written six books on biomimetics, describes biomimics as ‘Nature’s apprentices’ in one of her TED talks. The above photo is of a solar forest designed by Neville Mars. The solar forest consists of solar tree that contain panels that rotate throughout the day, absorbing maximal sunlight throughout the day and providing shading for the cars. The idea is to power up the electric cars, which are parked in the car parking underneath as well as providing an area for overworked cars to ‘rest’ in a stress-free environment.

The Eastgate centre in Zimbabwe is another successful example of biomimetics. The building has no built in air conditioning or heating, yet it successfully maintains reasonable temperatures throughout the whole year. The structure of the building was inspired by the ventilation mechanism used by termites. Termites build mounds containing a fungus that they feed on, which must be kept at 87 degrees Fahrenheit. The termites open and close vents connected to the mound throughout the day to manage the air regulation. Similarly, the ventilation system of the Eastgate centre allows air to be drawn from open spaces on the first floor. This air is then pushed up vertical ducts and replaces the stale air, which exits through the ceiling the building. The Eastgate centre has saved $3.5 million due to this open air conditioning system. This shows that looking for answers within nature may be financially beneficial as well as aesthetically favourable.

Image adapted from TEDxZurich

It is apparent that biomimetics is an important and expanding field, but how it is it relevant in robotics? Traditionally, robots seem non-human and move rigidly due to the artificial materials that they have been put together with. Rolf Pfeifer and colleagues from the Artificial Intelligence Lab in the University of Zurich, have designed Roboy, a four foot tall tendon-driven robot whose muscles mimic the human musculoskeletal system. Roboy has 48 muscles and will act as a platform for researchers in the field of biomechanics to understand better the movement of human muscles. Pfeifer and colleagues plan to make Roboy’s design open source, so that anyone can play around with the design and improve the current version. With the current 3D printer hype, mimicking and perhaps improving this design seems achievable. Robots are often thought to be incapable to carry out certain tasks due to the limitations in their compilation; thus, researchers in the area of robotics are seeking inspiration from nature to bridge the gap between robots and humans. Robotics and Biomimetics will act as a platform to publish research that builds on this collaboration.

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