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Imitating Nature Through Robotics

by Claire Watry, Terra Linda HS

What do Olympic swimwear, Velcro, and office buildings all have in common? They are all inspired by nature and created through the process of biomimicry. According to the Biomimicry Institute, biomimicry is “a new discipline that studies nature's best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems”. The high-tech swimsuits worn by Olympic swimmers (before they were banned from competition) to be able to swim faster are based off of shark skin. Velcro is a hook-and-loop product created by Swiss engineer George de Mestral based on a burr. Termite dens serve as the inspiration for office buildings because of the ability of their cooling chimneys and tunnels to maintain a constant internal temperature.

Meet Terra Linda High School grad Ian Krase, a junior at University of California, Berkeley studying mechanical engineering who will be presenting at the upcoming Marin Science Seminar. In his presentation Bioinspiration: Bird-bots and Bug-bots at Berkeley, Ian will discuss how robots are developed through the process of biomimicry. In college, Ian joined the Fearing Lab, a group that works to create small, efficient robots by mimicking nature. Ian’s explanation of the Fearing Lab is “in university research, each professor runs a lab, with several graduate students who are working on their PhDs or Masters degrees. Each student has a project, and the whole lab has a unifying theme with its own laboratory space and shared resources. Fearing Lab is Professor Fearing's lab, and is focused on biomimicry and small-scale robotics.” The interview below shows how Ian became interested in robotics, what kind of work is done in the Fearing Lab, and advice on how to become involved in robotics.

What sparked your interest in robots?
I've been interested in mechanical things for as long as I remember, and robots are a developing field with some of the most interesting open questions. While I tried building a robot in junior high on a whim, my current interest began when I saw some robotics labs while visiting colleges. 
What past project are you most proud of?
Probably the work I did on BOLT (Bipedal Ornithopter for Locomotion Transitioning), a hybrid running and flying robot. I designed a carbon fiber frame for it to allow it to steer. My work on flight evolution was also pretty cool, but the part I actually worked on didn't end up panning out very well. 

Read more about BOLT here
What project are you currently working on?
Currently, I'm working on an upgraded ornithopter and on a project to study the evolution of flight in birds by building robotic models of extinct birds and test-flying them. 
What lessons have you learned from mimicking nature?
Natural systems are incredibly complicated, even the ones that seem simple. You need a LOT of iterations. And there is almost always a reason for everything -- you have to look a long way for something you can actually change. Also, natural systems seem to be incredibly strong and damage resistant. It's actually a little creepy. 
What do you see as the future/potential of biomimicry? 
We can expect some much more efficient equipment, especially small UAVs. I also expect to see prosthetics to get much better, although Fearing Lab doesn't work on things of that scale. I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of equipment replacing motors or manual latches with shape-shifting actuators. 

How can students learn more about and get involved with robotics and biomimicry?

Robotics is pretty popular, and easy to get into -- you can pick up a Lego robotics set or use an Arduino and a simple driving base. On the other hand, if you want to go Fearing Lab style, you'll do better starting with the mechanical parts. (Most of our work is more about mechanical systems and controls than about software). In the last five years there's been an explosion in the availability of cheap and easy to use 3D printers and electronics development kits. You might want to join a hackerspace -- these often have classes or workshops in electronics and other subjects. If you want to get your hands on a Fearing Lab project, you can check out Dash Robotics. And there is also a project to make gecko tape in a school chemistry lab environment on the Fearing Lab website.

Gecko Tape
For more information: Gecko Tape Activity
As far as college goes, you'll probably want to go to a research institution for mechanical, electrical, or bioengineering. Fearing Lab at UC Berkeley, the Poly-Pedal lab at Berkeley, the Biorobotics Lab at Case Western Reserve University, and the Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation lab at Stanford are all biomimetic robotics labs. General robotics labs are quite common at universities with engineering research. You should also look at joining TL's FIRST Robotics team. 

For more information about the Biomimetic Millisystems Lab click here

Learn more about biomimicry in engineering on NOVA's Making Stuff: Wilder. You can watch it online here

Learn more about robotics and biomimicry at BioinspirationBird-bots and Bug-bots at Berkeley" with Ian Krase, TLHS grad and junior at UC Berkeley on Wednesday, October 30th, 2013, 7:30 – 8:30 pm, Terra Linda High School, San Rafael, Room 207


Claire Watry
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