biologically inspired engineering

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Need to stick two pieces of pipe together in confined and hazardous industrial settings? Soon there might not be any need to stick a human in there. Instead, just send in the laser-firing robotic snake. 

A UK-based company called OC Robotics has demonstrated that their machine can maneuver through areas with limited access until it arrives at its target. Once there, a rotating head outfitted with a 5-kilowatt fiber laser can cut and weld metal pipes. The company’s robot adds to the growing list of snake-inspired machines in the world, which now includes units working in the medical field, disaster relief and other applications. See the video below.

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A Seahorse Tail Could Inspire Better Robots, Surgical Tools

by Michael Keller

An advance in understanding why the seahorse’s tail is made of square plates could inform the next generation of robotics and armor. In an engineering study that looked at the mechanics of how the fish’s tail works, researchers found the structure’s shape is optimized to resist crushing and to grasp while bending and twisting.

An international team modeled the stresses and strains of the tail bones with a computer and 3-D printed prototypes to subject them to engineering tests. They believe that the superior resistance to compression is an adaptation to protect the fragile spinal cord that runs the length of the tail.

One of their primary questions was why evolution would select for square prisms in the seahorse skeleton when other animals that do similar things with their tails have developed cylindrical ones. Learn more and see images below.

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How Termites Build Complex Homes Without a Master Plan

by Charles Q. Choi, Inside Science

Termites are tiny insects, but they are capable of moving tons of soil to build giant nests. Now scientists are discovering simple rules these insect architects might follow that could help explain how they build complex homes without a master plan.

Such research could lead to robot swarms that can organize to assemble intricate structures. These findings could also help decipher the rules governing complex systems ranging from blood vessels to neural networks.

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Viral Membrane Protects Medical Nanorobots From Immune System

Scientists say they have developed a cloaking device to spirit medical nanorobots of the future past immune systems into diseased cells. Their innovation comes from stealing a powerful weapon viruses wield to infect their hosts.

Some viruses wrap themselves in a protective membrane to avoid detection by their host’s immune system and enter cells they are trying to infect. A team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have been able to construct their own version of a viral membrane.

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See Dr. Sahin’s Wondrous Spore-Driven Evaporation Engine

It sounds like a steampunk fantasy, but it is, in fact, a real thing. 

Columbia University bioengineers have built a number of working engines powered by water evaporation and contracting and expanding bacterial spores. The machines represent the first time the humidity that naturally rises from evaporating water has been used as a fuel source.

Biophysicist Ozgur Sahin and his colleagues built evaporation-driven devices that enabled a miniature car to move, a mill to spin, weight to be lifted and an oscillatory engine to power LEDs.

The work is actually a continuation of research we reported on in 2014 to generate electricity and make robot muscles from the force of hydrating and dehydrating microbial spores. But where that study showed only rudimentary lengths of polymer film coated with the spores flexing when in contact with water vapor, the group has now created working machinery using the phenomenon. Learn more and see a video below.

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Pine Cones Inspire Walking Robot

When it comes to robots taking tips from nature to move, there is no shortage of examples from the animal kingdom. Engineers have used dogs, horses, insects and many other animals as inspiration to help their creations walk, fly, swim and crawl. 

Now we’re seeing people look even further afield for ideas to get robots to get up and go. Not too long ago, we brought you machines that move because of the swelling and contracting of bacterial spores. Yesterday, researchers from South Korea’s Seoul National University demonstrated another technique that they took from a different kingdom, one that isn’t usually associated with mobility.

Engineer Ho-Young Kim and colleagues looked to the plant world to make a simple legged robot that can walk in a single direction with no power needed besides changing ambient humidity. Their muse? The unassuming pine cone.

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How Owls Could Quiet Wind Turbines and Planes

If you were a field mouse minding your own business and foraging for some food in the forest, the last creature you’d want to spot you would be an owl. The reason is simple–even as the bird of prey swooped down with talons open, you’d never hear it coming.

Owls have an impressive superpower in silent flight, made possible by specialized wings and feathers that disperse the sound of air rushing past them. Now an international research team says they have taken a tip from owls that could eventually lead to turbine blades and jet aircraft that produce significantly less noise.

“No other bird has this sort of intricate wing structure,” said University of Cambridge applied mathematician Nigel Peake. “Much of the noise caused by a wing – whether it’s attached to a bird, a plane or a fan – originates at the trailing edge where the air passing over the wing surface is turbulent. The structure of an owl’s wing serves to reduce noise by smoothing the passage of air as it passes over the wing – scattering the sound so their prey can’t hear them coming.” Learn more below.

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A sidewinder rattlesnake is training a robot how to turn and navigate tight corners.

The work, by researchers at Georgia Tech, Zoo Atlanta and Carnegie Mellon, continues efforts to both understand the biomechanics of the organism and to improve movements in limbless robots.

During studies of the real snake, the team realized that sidewinders control their movement through soft sand by undulating in horizontal and vertical body waves. 

The animals are very maneuverable by using these waves independently. Along with forward propulsion, modulating the two waves allows them to make shallow changes to their direction of travel, which the team calls differential turning. Sidewinders can also perform sharp reversal turns by altering their two body waves. Learn more below.

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We’re as enamored as every other nerd with Back to the Future Day lists of unrealized tech the classic movie promised, but we’ve opted instead to bring you gifs of jumping crickets.

These aren’t just any jumping crickets, mind you. These agile and acrobatic athletes are spider crickets, whose beefy hind legs can propel them more than 60 times their body length through the air. Even after a huge jump, the animals can amazingly stick the landing, returning to earth feet-first and then going on their way. 

A Johns Hopkins University mechanical engineer and his students have spent the better part of a year studying how the crickets launch and stay stable in air. The hope is that the insects could lead to better designs for robots that need to scramble over rough, uneven terrain during search-and-rescue operations. See a video and learn more below.

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Beetle Inspires New Anticounterfeiting Color-Changing Ink

Researchers in China have unveiled a new type of color-changing ink that could be used to fight money counterfeiting. Their innovation, inspired by a species of longhorn beetle that shifts colors between red and gold, continues to work even when exposed to bleach and light.

Zhongze Gu, Zhuoying Xie, Chunwei Yuan and colleagues investigated the Tmesisternus isabellae beetle, which changes color based on the humidity in its environment. They found that the change occurs when water vapor is adsorbed by the beetle’s wing cases. This causes changes to the thickness of layered scales, which makes light refract differently through them and the resulting color shift.

At the heart of the new ink are materials called colloidal photonic crystals (CPCs), which are suspensions of structured nanoparticle-sized compounds that offer tunable optical responses. Different types of CPCs look the same color under one set of environmental conditions, but refract light slightly differently when exposed to specific vapors.

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Surface Changes As Microhairs Move In Magnetic Fields

MIT engineers have developed a coating with tiny metallic microscopic hairs that move when subjected to switching magnetic fields. The movement lets researchers control the direction and speed that fluid moves over the surface or optical characteristics of light passing through.

The hairs are made of nickel and stick out of a stretchy silicone skin beneath. Each hair is a pillar about one-fourth the diameter of a human hair, they say.

“We can apply the field in any direction, and the pillars will follow the field, in real time,” said mechanical engineering graduate student Yangying Zhu.

Click the gifs above or read more and see a video below.

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Coating Makes Steel Tougher, Keeps Microbes From Sticking

More and more objects are getting superhydrophobic coatings that make liquids bounce right off. Surfaces with complex nanoscopic structures that prevent wetting will soon be deployed on wind turbine blades and aircraft wings to prevent ice from sticking, and even concrete is being doped with superhydrophobic compounds to help it last decades longer.

Much still needs to be done, though, to strengthen these coatings because any damage can remove the ability to repel liquids. Such an advance is hugely important since there are potentially life-saving healthcare applications if this hurdle could be overcome with a stable, nontoxic coating for steel. Just imagine if implants, scalpels and other tools used on patients had a surface impossible for infection-causing microbes to cling to.

Now, Joanna Aizenberg and her colleagues at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have demonstrated a possible solution. They’ve been able to coat stainless steel with nanoporous tungsten oxide, which repels all liquids. What’s more, the surface is extremely tough, maintaining superhydrophobicity even after being scratched with sharp steel objects and diamond.

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Ocean Inspiration

by Txchnologist staff

Engineers looked below the sea surface to design this incredibly strong, lightweight structure. The ceramic scaffold building block is inspired by the hierarchical construction of marine diatoms, radiolarians and sea sponges.

Drawing inspiration from organisms with silica skeletons, the one cubic millimeter blocks have demonstrated incredible tensile strength even though most of the structure is air. The strength, says the California Institute of Technology team that created the material, comes from using tiny structural elements that minimize potential flaws.    

“Our findings suggest that the hierarchical design principles offered by hard biological organisms can be applied to create damage-tolerant lightweight engineering materials,” the researchers conclude in a paper published in the journal Nature Materials.

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Glass Gets Stronger By Cracking It

by Txchnologist staff

Engraving microscopic cracks in glass sheets can make it 200 times tougher than normal, McGill University mechanical engineers say. The insight could lead to improvements in regular glass objects like wine glasses or jars that don’t shatter when dropped, instead only deforming on impact.

Researchers took a clue from nature to uncover the fact that etching wavy lines in test glass slides prevented stress-induced cracks from spreading into the material’s failure. Their muse was the seemingly simple mother-of-pearl coating inside the shells of some mollusks.

This material is called nacre, and it is mostly composed of chalk, a brittle substance that normally disintegrates under the slightest pressure. But the organism constructs a biomaterial that is 3,000 times tougher than the weak chalk from which it is composed, writes François Barthelat, who runs McGill’s biomimetic materials lab and led the research. The secret is in how the creature builds nacre out of tiny tablets of chalk that are laid down in offset rows. This architecture, which is also seen in teeth and bones, counters a propagating crack by deflecting it and diffusing energy to surrounding tiles.

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Looking to Mussels for Design Inspiration

by Ysabel Yates

Mussels just won’t let go. Once attached to ships and rocks, even powerful waves can’t budge them. For years, biomimetics researchers have been trying to find a way to use the strength of “mussel glue” in their own designs. However, a new study says it’s not the glue, but a structure called the byssus thread, a group of strong filaments, that’s responsible for the mussel’s strength.

“Think about a high-rise building,” says Markus Buehler, who led the study with colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  “It’s not just the concrete that holds it together, it’s the overall structure. That concept has been applied to a much bigger degree and to a much greater optimization in nature.”

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Octopus-Inspired Camo Changes Color In Light

Researchers have taken a tip from the ocean’s masters of disguise to develop a new active camouflage system. 

An international team of scientists coupled heat-sensitive dye with a distributed grid of photoreceptors to make a flexible material that changes color based on the light that falls on it. When any of the system’s cells is heated above 117 degrees Fahrenheit by a silicon diode underneath, the dye turns from black to clear.

Like the cephalopods that inspired the work, the camo system can respond to changes in light within two seconds using 

“The concepts provide realistic routes to thin sheets that can be conformally wrapped onto solid objects to modulate their visual appearance, with potential relevance to consumer, industrial, and military applications,” the authors write in a report on their work published today in the journal PNAS. 

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Seahorse Inspires Innovative Hybrid Robot Design

by Michael Keller

More and more, nature is becoming the wellspring from which engineers working on efficient robotic locomotion drink. Those creating machine flight are mimicking the action of bats, birds and insects. To overcome terrestrial obstacles, they are developing mechanical horses and canines. For the sea, they’re working on robotic jellyfish, rays and others.

One inspiration for future generations of agile robots is coming from an unlikely source: the tails of seahorses.

The marine creature’s prehensile appendage—capable of curling more than 360 degrees in on itself and gripping vegetation—displays unique mechanical properties that engineers at the University of California, San Diego, think could be the key to flexible, agile robots.

“The seahorse is an intriguing creature,” says Michael Porter, a UC San Diego materials science doctoral student who is leading the research. “We’re looking at this animal for both biological study and the engineering of materials.”

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Strong Glass Sea Sponge Hairs Could Inspire Better Construction Materials

The image above on the left shows the cross section of a nearly pure glass cable. While only 50 microns across, it is organized in a complex structural arrangement that includes a solid silica glass core surrounded by up to 50 concentric cylinders of glass that are each separated by a thin layer of organic material. As you move away from the core, each cylinder is thinner than the one before, as shown in the visualization to the right. This design gives the cable unique strength not normally associated with glass.

It would make sense to hear that the complex engineering behind this cable came out of a well-funded industrial or government lab. Perhaps groups of the lines bundled together would make up the data-transmitting undersea telecommunications cables that must endure crushing pressure. Well, it turns out that the cable does sit on the seafloor–it is grown by a species of marine sponge that uses an array of the cable-like hairs, called spicules, to anchor the animal to the ground.

Brown University mechanical engineer Haneesh Kesari is part of a team studying the Venus’ flower basket sea sponge to unlock the mystery of how it grows its own complex glass structures with astounding physical properties.

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Lab-Made Compound Lens Works Like Flies’ Eyes

Microscopic liquid crystals have been made into a compound lens that could be used for 3-D imaging. University of Pennsylvania researchers built the lenses by creating tiny pillars out of a polymer sheet. The liquid crystals were then applied onto the sheet and self-assembled around the pillars’ curved surfaces.

Each variably sized crystal produces clear images at different focal lengths. They arrange themselves from largest to smallest crystals in concentric rings around the pillar

“That they focus on different planes is what allows for 3-D image reconstruction,” said chemist Shu Yang. “You can use that information to see how far away the object you’re seeing is.” 

The crystals are also sensitive to light polarization. In the gif below, created from a video that accompanied the group’s study in the journal Advanced Optical Materials, light polarization is shifted from vertical to horizontal to vertical again. With vertically polarized light, images of smiley faces only come into focus in the lenses to the left and right of the micropillar at center. See the video below. 

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Growing Structures Like Sea Sponges Do Could Make NextGen Coatings

Chemists and nanotechnologists have figured out how to grow complex microscopic shapes that could make the next generation of coatings and improve industrial 3-D printing. 

A group at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Lab produced spheres that grew long segmented spikes after being inspired by marine sponges. The sea creatures grow amazingly complex shapes out of silica at ambient temperatures and without the use of powerful chemicals.

Jaswinder Sharma and his colleagues made the structures, which can measure less than a micron across, by placing an emulsion droplet on the surface of silica particle seeds. When another chemical was added, different numbers of spikes grew on the seeds depending on the volume of solution added. Controlling the temperature allowed the researchers to create screw-like characteristics on the growing spikes.

They say that these complex shapes could make bonding layers for coatings that last longer than what is currently available. Applications could include coatings for eyeglasses, displays, transportation and self-cleaning windows and roofs. See a photo of the growing oxide microstructures below.

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