College of Engineering

How Nature Can Lead the Next Robotic Revolution

February 12, 2020

Dr. Federico Renda, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at KU, discusses how robots can use bioinspiration to achieve major breakthroughs. 

Nature is a rich source of knowledge, and present-day human life has undoubtedly progressed because of our ability to be inspired by nature and to then innovate solutions to our problems through biomimicry. Biomimicry is exactly what it suggests: it’s imitating biological systems, features, and elements to solve engineering problems for humans. Biomimicry differs from bionics in that it involves conscious copying of examples and mechanisms from nature, while bionics implements a function.

When we consider that biological systems have been in development for billions of years, it makes intuitive sense to copy the solutions for many different classes of problems that have been provided through optimization of designs adapted to changing conditions on Earth. We’ve looked at nature for answers to our problems throughout our existence—Velcro tape was inspired by the tiny hooks on bur fruits while Leonardo da Vinci based his sketches for a flying machine on bat wings.

Our research and development cycles can be glacial and researchers are realizing that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel—we can copy it. Robots everywhere could use some bioinspiration.

For example, the robots used today to inspect and repair the world’s most critical underwater infrastructure, from sea-floor water pipelines and electrical power cables to offshore drilling platforms and submarines, could use serious improvement. Most commercial underwater robots are bulky and rigid, restricted to travelling only in open stretches of the sea, and sometimes even wreak havoc on sensitive equipment when they navigate too close. Soft robots would offer a much better solution to the complex underwater tasks of the mysterious and largely unexplored subsea world.

My team and I took inspiration from the E. Coli bacteria which use flagella to move seamlessly through fluids. These “tails” are slender, threadlike appendages and have been described as the only known example of a biological “wheel”. They operate as a “system capable of providing continuous propulsive torque about a fixed body” and propel the bacteria through liquids. Our soft robot physically resembles the flagellum and moves in a similar whipping motion; it even mimics the intracellular motor that flagella use to propel forwards, making it capable of continuous locomotion.

A bioinspired robot using a bioinspired propulsion system to effectively navigate the ocean world—just one example of how bio-inspiration is leading the transition from industrial robots, caged in inaccessible spaces within factories, to collaborative robots, machines designed to interact with natural and unstructured environments on the sea, land, and sky.

Biomimicry also extends to taking inspiration from human movement and behavior. My colleagues in the Khalifa University Center for Autonomous Robotic Systems (KUCARS) are developing compliant robotic manipulators—compliant actuators to allow a robot to move more dynamically in its space. In industrial robotics, the term ‘compliant’ refers to a robot’s flexibility and suppleness. An actuator inspired by human motion and learning behavior will endow robots with versatile and constantly adaptive movements, offering an unprecedented aptitude for integrating in our environments. Having robots that can undertake repetitive or potentially risky tasks with high levels of dexterity and autonomy will help make industrial processes more efficient as well as offer unprecedented and potentially disruptive innovative opportunities.

Other colleagues in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science are working on giving robots this dexterity by mimicking the functionality, if not the structure and mechanisms, of human skin. Naturally, the development of a sense of touch is a real engineering challenge and requires development spanning materials and electronics to communication and processing. Humans interact with unstructured and uncertain environments by sensing and perceiving everything from location, temperature, and elasticity, to stiffness, texture and pressure. Mimicking the way the human finger experiences the physical world will allow robots to respond to multiple stimuli and better interact with the world around them. Inspiration from human biology can lead to huge breakthroughs in robotics and human-robot interaction.

Humans are endlessly inventive but we’ve only been inventing for the blink of an evolutionary eye. Nature and biology offer a wealth of painstakingly developed adaptations for innumerable problems and we’re only scratching the surface of what our future robots could do.

Dr. Federico Renda is Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Khalifa University and a member of the Khalifa University Center for Autonomous Robotic Systems (KUCARS).
11 February 2020