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Dr. M. Anthony Lewis is president and CEO of Iguana Robotics, an Urbana, Illinois, company that makes biologically inspired robots such as “Marilyn,” a biomorphic humanoid robot used to study the neuro-control of movement. He believes that innovations like the “slug” colonoscope prove how engineers can take inspiration from the natural world.

“Traditional robotic mechanisms designed by mechanical engineers are very good at handling hard, manmade objects, but not soft tissue,” Lewis says. This work is an “example of how ideas from biology can contribute to innovations in technology.”

For his part, Chiel has been studying the behavior and movement of soft-tissue animals like the sea slug for nearly 20 years, with the motivating idea that “if we can understand how nature controls adaptive behavior through its neural and biomechanical mechanisms, it will have spin-offs in novel devices.” 

As Lewis points out, the robotic device Chiel and his team created isn’t just inspired by soft-tissue animals – it’s actually made up of softer and more pliable materials, like nylon and latex, rather than hard, heavy, inflexible metals. Creating a robot that replicates the “coordination [people] take completely for granted is a very difficult thing,” Chiel says.

With that in mind, Case Western graduate student in mechanical engineering Liz Mangan had a challenging task in building the robotic device that Chiel and his colleagues Roger Quinn, director of the university’s Biorobotics Laboratory, and Randy Beer, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, designed in 2000.

Mangan, who now holds a Master’s degree, was an undergraduate specializing in biomechanics when she began working on the project in February 2001. The biggest challenge, she says, was building a working model of their device out of off-the-shelf parts. It meant a lot of improvising. For instance, Mangan built her own bearings for one part of the device, and used the fingertips of plastic gloves for seals on another. She finished the first working prototype in August 2001, and not long afterward, the university applied for a patent, which was issued in July 2004.

Perhaps the biggest challenge she faced, Mangan admits, is one that “we haven’t really solved” yet. Earthworms have tiny hairs on their bodies that help grip surfaces when they move. Unable to replicate that ultra-delicate feature in their artificial version, Mangan says her robotic device still needs to contact a surface in at least two places.

Dr. Ron Fearing, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California at Berkeley, believes that more researchers are beginning to realize that nature is “doing things in a very clever way – but not in the way engineers have typically designed systems.” 

He says the Case Western work typifies a shift in robotics, where more engineers will copy biological systems to create “anthropomorphic robots” made of softer and lighter materials that operate like a living creature.

The Berkeley Robotics Laboratory, for instance, is creating “biomemetic” machines, which can imitate the movement of insects or frogs. And researchers at the California Institute of Technology helped develop a biomorphic robot for NASA, called BIROD, designed to distribute power throughout its “body,” similar to how human bodies work, rather than a centralized power system.

“Engineering is starting to take inspiration from biology as we come across challenges that machines can’t solve,” Mangan says.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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