5 Examples of Insect-Inspired Robotics

Everyone knows that robots are merely lifeless machines, no matter how amazing their abilities may be. However, you may be surprised at how often scientists replicate the features and capabilities of living creatures to increase robotic performance. In fact, there’s even a whole branch of robotics called “biomimetics” dedicated to that single premise. The term biomimetics means literally to “mimic life.” Insects are one form of life from which biomimetic scientists draw significant inspiration for new types of robotic technology.

Functions and behaviors that evolved over hundreds of millions of years in insects can be hard to top. So scientists increasingly looking to Mother Nature and biomimicry for innovative design ideas. The resulting technology is blurring the lines between living beings and machines more than ever.

Silently Communicating Crickets

African cave crickets communicate by using their wings to form airwaves that send a pocket of low-pressure air toward potential mates. The communication is silent, so that predators cannot be alerted to the insects’ presence. Andy Russell, from Monash University in Australia, explains the communication of the African cave cricket, saying, “Vortex rings are produced when a puff of air is ejected through a hole into still air…Vortices like these can travel for surprisingly long distances.”

This means of communication has been replicated by engineers in Australia, allowing robots to silently exchange information with one another. Robots that are able to silently communicate may prove useful for high security applications or in environments where noise is undesirable.

Lightning Fast Cockroaches

Researchers at UC Berkeley studied the way in which cockroaches can scurry up walls and across ceilings. The UC Berkeley project is entitled “DASH,” for Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod. Not only do DASH robots have the ability to walk on vertical surfaces, they can traverse gaps and run upside down by using the same movement as the cockroach.

In an article published in 2012, DASH scientists explained that they only discovered the secret to the roach’s movement after reviewing videos of it in slow motion. Now, however, others can see how the cockroach is such a mobile pest – by watching the DASH robot in action.

Swarming Bees

Robobees or “bee-bots,” as they are sometimes called, are in varying stages of development around the world. Mimicking bee behavior, on the scale necessary to replicate an entire hive, means controlling thousands of mini-bots simultaneously. When scientists are able to provide the bee-bots with sophisticated-enough brains, of course, that may be possible. However, scientists have not been able to accomplish this yet.

robobees

Photo via harvard.edu

Even if the ability to create a bee-sized bee-bot is still years away, experimentation and development continue. Research teams around the world are working on problems such as colony communication and robot size. In 2013, New Scientist magazine reported:

Robots have replicated complex insect flight: the BionicOpter, built by German technology company Festo, mimics a dragonfly, albeit one of prehistoric size… The DelFly Micro, created by researchers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, spans a mere 10 centimeters wing to wing. At the University of Pennsylvania, researchers have used swarms of quadcopters, each small enough to fit into the palm of your hand, to pick up and move heavy objects.

No, we won’t see robobees pollinating orchards anytime soon, but there are still discoveries being made that some day may lead to this possibility.

Intelligent Ants

Ants are known for their ability to work together in order to accomplish a common goal. By modeling ant behavior, scientists are searching for ways to allow robots to team up and repair themselves, travel underground, or share tasks. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, researchers are particularly fascinated in how fire ants create bridges out of themselves. Not only do these creatures form bridges by linking appendages, they are also able to adjust the strength of their grip to keep the living bridge flexible and strong. This means that if the ants sense a weak spot in the bridge they can immediately compensate.

Simon Garnier, a Rutgers University scientist explains, “The construction rules followed by the ants represent a formidable source of inspiration for people working on self-assembling robots and self-repairing materials.”

Other ant-mimicking robots have already been developed. For example, scientists have been able to replicate the insects’ ability to find the most direct path to their goal by using light signals and relatively simple programming. The result is that the robots can now act autonomously to find the most efficient way to tackle a goal. Scientists believe this technology may be applied to road and space design in the future.

Rolling Caterpillars

Caterpillars have soft, flexible bodies along with five or six pairs of legs. They’re capable of generating momentum by rolling into a ball and propelling themselves along a variety of surfaces. This means of locomotion, sometimes called “ballistic rolling,” is currently being used by robots such as the GoQBot, which was developed at Tufts University several years ago. Until GoQBot was invented, soft-bodied robots were relatively slow-moving. The GoQBot, however, uses its silicon rubber body to propel itself nearly 20 inches (one-half meter) in one second. Amazingly, this robot is only ten centimeters, or about 4 inches, long.

Huai-Ti Lin, one of the senior researchers who worked on the GoQBot, commented a few years ago on the possible applications of this new design, suggesting that it could, “…enhance several robotic applications such as urban rescue, building inspection, and environmental monitoring.”

Summary

One might develop a bit more respect for the lowly insect after learning how important their physical structures, sensory features, and means of locomotion have become to scientists developing the next generation of robotics. The evolutionary forces that shaped their development are difficult to top. Now more than ever, insects are leading the way into the future of robotic technology.

References

Bar-Cohen, Yoseph. (2014) “Biologically-Inspired Intelligent Robots Using EAP as Biomimetic Actuation Materials.” NASA. Powerpoint.

Marks, Paul. (2011). “Cave Cricket’s Trick Keeps Robot Chatter Confidential.” New Scientist. 209(2802). March 5. p. 28.

Poeter, Damon. (2012). “Cockroach-like Robot Scurries Over Ledges in Creepy Fashion.” PC Magazine. June. p.1.

Williams, Caroline. (2013). “I, Bee Bot.” New Scientist. 220(2943). Nov. 11. p. 42-45.

“Fire Ants Lock Arms to Keep Bridges From Falling.” (2014). Science Now. Jan. 7. p2.

Lewis, Tanya. (2013). “Ants ‘Use Math’ to Find Fastest Route.” LiveScience. April 17.

“Caterpillars Inspire New Movements in Soft Robots.” (2011). Institute of Physics. Tufts University. April 27.

Google Wallet: Fixing What's Sort of Broken

Google Wallet is supposed to be the Earth-shattering thing that completely changes forever how we deal with money. And to be fair, it might, but as Matt Buchanan reports, it’s not. Not because the product doesn’t work well, but because the thing that sucks about money isn’t the swiping of your credit card:

But then I still had to tell the dumb credit console whether I was paying debit or credit. And then I had to wait for my receipt to print out, all ten miles of it. Which made my attempt at being a mysterious stranger with mysterious magical technology quickly disappearing into the night fail miserably since it wouldve been mad awkward to stare directly into each others eyes for 45 seconds without saying a word.

Google Wallet is clearly a close-up glimpse at what the seamless, slippery future of money looks like—MasterCard is an appropriate enough vector for a technological Mark of the Beast, I suppose—but its still very much in 2011. Friction abounds.

Texting with UPS

Starting in October, gone are your days of missing packages:

If you miss package deliveries enough to want to punch something, this will make you happy. The day your package is scheduled to be delivered, UPS will text or email or call you with a four-hour delivery window. This service, called UPS My Choice, is free and launches October 3rd. For a $5 fee you can reschedule delivery or ask them to deliver to another address. $5 is a little steep for that if you ask me, but there have definitely been occasions where getting the package that day would have been worth it to me.

Yay. Just, yay. Also, why did no one think of this before?

Who is the iPad For?

The iPad’s biggest downside may be that the people who cover it for a living are the one and only group of people for whom its biggest flaw really matters. So says MG Siegler:

Here’s the thing: at first, I wasn’t completely sold on the iPad as a PC replacement. And for my current line of work, I’m still not. It’s simply too hard to type more than a hundred words on the thing. You hear this refrain over and over again in the press. But it’s paradoxical. The press has to write about and review the iPad because that’s what they do. But they’re also the worst possible candidates for iPad usage.

I’ve slowly come to realize this over time. When I went on vacation a few months ago, I brought both my laptop and my iPad. I promised myself I wouldn’t do any work during the trip — as a result, the laptop never came out. Not once. The iPad? I used it every single day, for hours.

That’s important. The key is that I love computing and the web. Even during my off time, I love it. Yes, disconnect — blah, blah, blah. I’ll do what I want. But I’ve been trained over time to think that the traditional PC is the way to do these things whether it’s for work or play. That’s simply not true. The tablet form factor is so. much. better. when you don’t have to do an excessive amount of typing. And during downtime, when I use a computer like a more regular human being, I’ve found that’s often.

I completely agree. When I’m working, my iPad never comes out of my bag, and I’m working most of the time. But when typing lots and lots of words isn’t my first goal, the iPad does the things I need better than any other gadget I’ve used.

MG’s dead on, as usual.

Can Tim Cook be Steve Jobs?

Osama bin Laden’s death, the East Coast Earthquake, and Steve Jobs’ resignation. What do those three things have in common? They’re the only three things in recent memory that have taken over every aspect of my online life, from my Facebook to my favorite blogs to my Twitter feed. People who don’t give a crap about tech, or politics, or whatever else, give a crap about this.

It’s been covered from every angle, but I like Nick Thompson’s best. He wonders, can Tim Cook do what Steve Jobs did? He says no, not because he’s not great, but because his name isn’t Steve Jobs:

The big question now is whether Tim Cook, Jobs’s successor, can succeed. I’m sure he’s good, and the people around him are good too. But he won’t do as well, for at least one reason. Steve Jobs built a cult of personality that gave him power. Many of Apple’s future fights will be about content. Which tech companies will get the rights to show what things, in what ways, on their devices? Jobs had a power that Cook could not possibly have here, just because he was Jobs. He could summon anyone he wanted to meet with him; he could get journalists to write whatever he wanted them to write; and, if he and Apple threatened to screw you over, you had to believe them.

via News Desk: Steve Jobs’s Power : The New Yorker.

Nick Kroll's Social Media Manners

Nick Kroll, from Best TV Show Ever “The League,” gives Details readers advice on how to not be terrible at social media. Lots of good stuff, but two things he’s dead on about:

If you write LOL in a tweet or status update unironically, I will immediately assume that I am smarter than you are.

And:

Don’t bother going on first dates anymore. Skip right to the second or third date. Why? Because if I have your full name, I will Google you, Facebook you, check you out on Tumblr, read your tweets, and see what your favorite YouTube videos are. The only thing you can learn about people on a first date is how good they are at pretending like they don’t already know everything about you.

 

Sometimes You Need the Print Version

Jack Shafer writes about why he cancelled his New York Times subscription, and then forked over too much money to get it back. Mostly, he said, it’s because it’s not the news without the paper paper:

The researchers found that the print folks “remember significantly more news stories than online news readers”; that print readers “remembered significantly more topics than online newsreaders”; and that print readers remembered “more main points of news stories.” When it came to recalling headlines, print and online readers finished in a draw.

Although the number of readers tested in the study is small—just 45—the paper confirms my print-superiority bias, at least when it comes to reading the Times. The paper explores several theories for why print rules. Online newspapers tend to give few cues about a storys importance, and the “agenda-setting function” of newspapers gets lost in the process. “Online readers are apt to acquire less information about national, international and political events than print newsreaders because of the lack of salience cues; they generally are not being told what to read via story placement and prominence—an enduring feature of the print product,” the researchers write. The paper finds no evidence that the “dynamic online story forms” you know, multimedia stuff have made stories more memorable.

The key thing here, I think, is the importance of context clues. Big headlines mean “please read this, this is important!” There’s not a good way to do that online, especially not at any kind of scale; every story is the same online, and that’s just not right. We need the Times to tell us what’s important, and how important it is.

How Twitter Beat the Stock Market

Rebecca Greenfield, at the Atlantic Wire, reports on a hedge fund that took all its advice from Twitter, and beat the stock market:

Not all words or moods reflect the markets ebbs and flows. The algorithm specifically looks at the level of calmness on Twitter explains Jordan. “Their results showed that rises and falls in the number of instances of words related to a calm mood could be used to predict the same moves in the Dow’s closing price between two and six days later, with a fall in these “calm” words being followed by a fall in the index. The other moods did not have the same predictive quality, the paper said.” Specifically, it looks for words like “alert,” “happy,” and “vital,” adds Financial News Michelle Price. “Derwent Capital scans a selected 10% of available tweets at random and will then categorise these messages into one of a range of mood states.”

The Next Big Thing is Already Here

Want to know what’s coming next, what spectacular new technology is going to change everything about everything? Just look around, says Clive Thompson. It’s already out there:

Can this actually be true? Buxton points to exhibit A, the pinch-and-zoom gesture that Apple introduced on the iPhone. It seemed like a bolt out of the blue, but as Buxton notes, computer designer Myron Krueger pioneered the pinch gesture on his experimental Video Place system in 1983. Other engineers began experimenting with it, and companies like Wacom introduced tablets that let designers use a pen and a puck simultaneously to manipulate images onscreen. By the time the iPhone rolled around, “pinch” was a robust, well-understood concept.

A more recent example is the Microsoft Kinect. Sure, the idea of controlling software just by waving your body seems wild and new. But as Buxton says, engineers have long been perfecting motion-sensing for alarm systems and for automatic doors in grocery stores. We’ve been controlling software with our bodies for years, just in a different domain.

Why Are There Viruses?

Gizmodo’s Mat Honan investigates the world of computer viruses, and he finds that not only are there serious financial upsides to viruses and spam, but that there were two distinct products that made computer viruses explode: email, and Windows XP:

Theres also another reason that malware writers have surged: Microsoft Windows XP. That ancient system is, unbelievably, still the most widely used operating system on the planet. Its installed on more than 50 percent of all machines connected to the Internet, and its very insecure.

“XP is the weakest of all systems,” says Hypponen, ” and it is installed on the most computers. Of course you will target that.”

“The source of malware today is 99 percent criminal gangs, and thats a pretty nasty development,” says Hypponen. “We didnt used to have to worry in the real world. But now there are organized criminal gangs, making millions from their attacks. When we shut down their operations, they know who we are.”