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Imitating nature to build a better (or possibly more terrifying) future. We've been trying to build flapping-wing robots for hundreds of years, and now, ornithopters are finally being developed, and may be used mostly for military purposes.

Piezoelectrics make those little bugs possible, and also enhances the ability of robot arms to feel, in other news from the International Journal of Robotics.


A lot of science is about understanding the natural world, but there's a special branch of it that seeks to understand nature by imitating it. It's called 'bionics': the science of designing mechanical systems that are based on living systems. And this week, thanks to careful observation, we've gotten closer than ever to learning and duplicating some of Nature's hardest tricks. I give you: robots that can fly and robots that can feel.

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First of all, humans have been trying to build machines that use flapping wings in order to fly since about 400BC. These contraptions even have a name: ornithopters. Lots of smart people, including Leonardo Da Vinci, have tried and failed to imitate the design that works so well for birds, bats, and insects. Nature is just really good at what it does. Better than us, a lot of times. Flapping wings are more efficient and more wind tolerant than fixed wings. They're also more agile: they can react to unexpected obstacles and even stop mid-flight to hover in the air. Like when flies are always one centimeter away from your flyswatter, I don't know how they do it.

 Bionic fly

But in Thursday's issue of the journal Science graduate students at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences say that they had succeeded in making a bionic fly. It's a bug-sized robot with flapping wings that can hover in place and perform controlled maneuvers, much like a housefly. Described by the researchers as the first of its kind, the robot give researchers a new way to study flight dynamics.

In addition to helping us study flight in Nature, it's also a step toward imitating flight in Nature. Imagine efficient flying machines that can maneuver around obstacles and acclimate to changing weather conditions. Or drones that look like birds that can hover in place for hours to gather surveillance. Creepy! But probably useful.

 Piezoelectric materials

The US army of course already has an eye on this technology which is made possible because of it piezoelectric materials. These are solids, usually crystals, that gain electric charge in response to physical pressure. It's how some lighters work: a tiny hammer hits a piezoelectric crystal and creates a current that ignites the gas. The robots have crystals as well that respond to minute changes in charge and pressure, translating in minute changes in motion: the flapping of wings.

 Robot that can feel

Meanwhile, speaking of machines responding to real-world variables, engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in San Francisco's MEKA Robotics Lab have made a robotic arm with joints and skin that can imitate the sense of touch. They report in the International Journal of Robotics Research that rather than just having a hand that can point at objects, the whole robotic arm can sense pressure all around it to better complete tasks in new environments.

When given parameters for how much pressure it could put on objects the arm was able to navigate complex environments like piles of clutter and foliage. The sensitive arm was more able to retrieve objects through these obstacles than other robots, which is great because we live in a world full of obstacles and clutter, and robots that can sense pressure and gently navigate around obstacles, including living obstacles, have the potential to be safer. The roboticists say that the technology might even be useful at hospitals where patients need gentle assistance.

And much like with the bionic fly, the inspiration for the new arm came from animals. Animals like raccoons, that often reach for things that they can't see through dark foliage and other debris, but they can gently touch and recognize the unseen objects in search for food. So again we have Nature to thank for setting such a shining example for technology to follow.


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