No need to reinvent the wheel: technology looks to animal kingdom for inspiration

Industries: Healthcare
  • Compact X-ray machines inspired by lobster vision sees through steel walls
  • Robotic cheetah now autonomously jumps over various obstacles
  • Bat and dolphin inspired cane becomes award-winning mobility aid for the blind
  • Robotic animal whiskers are leading the way in new navigation technology
  • Capitalising on nature’s unparalleled efficiency

Biomimicry, bioinspiration and biomimetics take evolved life forms in nature for inspiration for new technological developments. Using natural systems as examples to create artificial ones is an increasingly popular approach and, in most cases, the obvious route to take. Roboticists, software and hardware designers and scientists all agree that reinventing the wheel is a waste of time. Some examples of technology taking inspiration from the animal kingdom are the bat-inspired cane for the blind and the new navigation technology based on animal whiskers. Read on for more intriguing examples.

1. Compact X-ray machines inspired by lobster vision sees through steel walls

Because X-rays are difficult to manipulate and focus like normal light, we need to blast hospital patients or suitcases at the airport with a torrent of radiation. This requires huge, clunky X-ray machines. Lobsters, however, living in the murk and mud at the bottom of the ocean, possess a type of X-ray vision that is based on reflection, instead of refraction like human vision and far superior to any of the big X-ray machines currently in use. Lobsters pick up direct reflections that they can focus to one single point where it is gathered to form images. It’s a unique optical geometric design that enables a lobster to see in even the murkiest, darkest places. Scientists of the Physical Optics Corporation, funded by the US Department of Homeland Security, have now found a way to copy this process to make a new type of X-ray device. The LEXID (Lobster Eye X-ray Imaging Device) is a handheld device that can ‘see’ through wood, concrete and 7 cm thick steel structures. Although not high-definition, the picture quality is good enough to detect weapons inside a cargo container or a person hiding behind a wall.

The LEXID (Lobster Eye X-ray Imaging Device)
The LEXID (Lobster Eye X-ray Imaging Device) is a handheld device that can ‘see’ through wood, concrete and 7 cm thick steel structures.

2. Robotic cheetah now autonomously jumps over various obstacles

Even robotics engineers are turning to the animal kingdom for design inspiration. Scientists at MIT’s Biometrics Robotics Lab, partly funded by DARPA’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation Division, have recently upgraded their robotic cheetah by training it to autonomously jump over 33cm high obstacles thrown in front of him. The cheetah detects the obstacles with its onboard 2D-laser distance sensor, while its 3-step algorithm calculates how to jump over the obstacle and perform the landing before it leaps into the air. The four-legged robot’s previous incredible accomplishment was being able to run untethered. The cheetah will eventually have a flexible spine and be able to take sharp corners, zigzag, sprint and stop dead in its tracks. The robot will ultimately be deployed by the military to work alongside troops and in the fields of firefighting, emergency response, vehicular travel and advanced agriculture.

3. Bat and dolphin inspired cane becomes award-winning mobility aid for the blind

The Ultrasound Research Interest Group at the University of Leeds in the UK recently designed the UltraCane, a walking stick for the blind and visually impaired that vibrates when it’s close to an obstacle. It makes use of the same echolocation system bats and dolphins use to map out their environment – emitting sonar calls into their surroundings and using the echoes that bounce back to navigate around obstacles. The UltraCane sends out tens of thousands of ultrasonic pulses per second and waits for the pulses to bounce back. Some pulses returning faster than others indicate that an object is closeby and cause the buttons on the handle of the cane – which is fitted with sensors and transmitters – to vibrate. Besides obstacles in the street or inside a shop, the UltraCane also detects low hanging branches or other objects overhead. The problem with regular canes is that the user can still collide with obstacles, people and hazards at head- or chest height. The canes also get stuck in tables, chairs, shrubs and other objects. The UltraCane detects obstacles as the user approaches them so that he can safely, effectively and confidently navigate around them. The UltraCane has a short-range mode that detects obstacles up to two metres away, and a long-range mode detects them from 4 metres away. The upper transducer detects objects within 1.6 metres. Because the vibrational feedback is silent, the user is able to interpret the tactile information while still hearing the sounds around him.

4. Robotic animal whiskers are leading the way in new navigation technology

Many animals that find themselves in an environment where their hearing or vision is limited, rely on their whiskers. Seals can judge the conditions of the ocean current by the way the seawater flows through their whiskers and rats sense their environment by brushing their whiskers against the surfaces that surround them. Inspired by these animals, researchers from Singapore and the US have recently designed artificial whiskers for robots. By analysing the whiskers’ responses to air- or water flow, they enable robots to interpret delicate movements, or see, in dark and murky surroundings. The whiskers are made from composite films of silver nanoparticles and carbon nanotubes, patterned onto flexible fibres. They are able to sense pressure changes down to approximately one Pascal which is roughly the pressure of a piece of paper on the table it rests on. This high sensitivity enables the whiskers to do more than just detect obstacles. They could be used as an alternative to conventional sonar, radar or vision systems, especially in darkness, fog, reflection and glare, anywhere optical sensors are prevented from working optimally. One such application could be fault detection in machinery, piping and ducts where one tactile brush of the whiskers can detect, diagnose and repair potential problems before they turn into catastrophic or expensive failures. Non-invasive intravascular surgery is another potential application. For this purpose, the robotic whiskers would have to be miniaturised. While several optical sensing methods are already available for surgical procedures, only the robotic whiskers are able to replicate the sense of touch that is lost during non-invasive surgery.

5. Whip-like wasp stinger inspires brain surgery needle

It has taken scientists and biologists ages to figure out how the bendable, whip-like needle on the end of a female wood wasp works. The wasps use these ‘drills’ to bore into wood to deposit their eggs. They somehow seem to be able to drill from any angle, without having to use any force or body weight. After years of studying and experimenting, the scientists discovered that the drills actually consist of two needles that move together, reinforcing each other. Inspired by these sophisticated needles, Dr. Ferdinando Rodriguez y Baena from Imperial College developed Sting (Soft Tissue Intervention and Neurosurgical Guide), a prototype computer-operated needle for use in delicate brain surgery. The needle is made from flexible, minuscule interlocked polymer shafts moving together, which enables them to do their job without causing damage to surrounding tissue.

Scientists at the University of Bath in the UK, who are investigating whether there’s life on Mars, were also inspired by the wood wasp drills. Because the Red Planet has no gravity to speak of, drilling into its surface would prove rather complicated. The wood wasp however inspired the scientists to come up with a saw-drill design that incorporates extra blades that work in the same way the needles of the wasp do. This technology would even make it possible to drill into the surface of meteors or planets with no gravity at all.

6. Capitalising on nature’s unparalleled efficiency

Biomimicry capitalises on nature’s unparalleled efficiency and many scientists, engineers, architects and roboticists have become nature’s apprentices. In order to find solutions to their challenges, they increasingly ask themselves, “How would nature solve this?” Then, they study, copy and enhance nature so that it can be used to their advantage. Although this makes sense, it doesn’t mean it’s easy. In many cases, replicating nature’s sophistication is still proving very challenging. Could this have something to do with the fact that she has had hundreds millions of years to perfect her designs?

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