Resilient Water Strategy
Yesterday the Wyss Institute announced their new octopus inspired soft robot, the Octobot. Octobot is a technological marvel, with no batteries, no electrical motors, no wheels, no saws, no lasers, it's just a beautifully sophisticated lump of jello - like us! In honor of this advance of soft robotics I wanted to share a short wish-list of a few organisms from the ocean deep that the brilliant minds at Wyss could help me turn into reality.
StarFish Robot (Echinobot)
The most challenging robot on my wish-list is without a doubt the EchinoBot. Starfish have a wonderfully bizzar system of locomotion that is perfect for soft robotics. The video above highlights a few of the more exciting opportunities for soft robotics inspired by the starfish. Tube feet are a spectacular use of what is essentially water balloons with muscles, yet they allow starfish to operate in high flow environments, open tough clams, and navigate complex terrain. Imagine house starfish that would clean out the air ducts? Or maybe we have robotic starfish in the ocean that provides sensor data of water quality?
The hard plates of the skeleton joined by muscle tissue is another exciting opportunity. What if our starfish robot could withstand extreme pressures, or be super resilient in the face of continuous collisions. I could imagine a starfish robot on any kids playground that could survive the wrath of a 2 year old yet also entertain for hours.
Scallop Robot (Lopbot)
h best thing about the Lopbot is that the focus is really on the sensor network of eyes. Scallops are best known as tasty dinner items, but are a thriving part of the marine ecosystem. Their locomotion mechanism is surprisingly effective, and I think within soft robotics could be achieved more easily and more resiliently than with more traditional engineering approaches. Combining the locomotion with simple light sensor and a processor could enable a robotic scallop that behaves almost like the real thing. Besides the charming interaction, my hope is that a Lopbot could be useful not only in pools for kids, but for serious applications such self organizing sensors for water quality, or underwater acoustic applications. They might even change the behavior of other organisms around them, protecting underwater areas, or acting as 'scare crows' of the sea for the emerging field of ocean farming.
Jellyfish Robot (Jellybot)
Why wouldn't you want a Jellybot? Jellyfish are incredible, just ask Rebecca Helm of JellyBiologist, who for years has shared some of the most inspiringly geeky stories of jellyfish amazingness. A true huggable soft robot if there ever was one, the jellyfish itself is not to be underestimated. They have shut down nuclear power plants, and Rebecca points out they may even helps us clean micro-pollution from the ocean. With their efficient, and beautiful locomotion the Jellybot should also not be understimted as an ambassador for soft robots everywhere.
As someone who has been working in bio-inspired design since 2004, I have a few habits that I rely on to help me gather information about the crazy things living organisms have evolved to accomplish. I spend a good deal of time using search engines to find new insights, or research a particular area of interest. Earlier this year I was looking for a way to make a tool that would help me speed up this process and ran into Google Custom Search. GCS is a free service that allows you to pick the sites you want to search, add a few keywords, and it returns Google results from those pages. It's not perfect, but over the past six months I have found these custom search engines useful. In particular it has enabled be to get more complete searches done in the fraction of the time it used to take. The engines below are in permanent 'beta'. I'm always tweaking and updating them -> If you are interested in helping me refine these, let's get in touch. Enjoy.
Searching for Biomimicry Products
Sometimes you just want to know what bio-inspired products are out there. AskNature.org is the go to place for most people starting out, and while their database is huge and growing all the time, I have found their content to be limited on any single specific topic. As a result the search for products includes AskNature in the algorithm, but also asks a bunch of other sites what products are out there lately. I have kept this one pretty tight, and often it will return zero results, but if there is a result it will likely be a product.
Details into Incredible Biology
Sometimes you want to dig into a particular organism, function, insight, or really cool idea. This next search engine casts a much broader net over the Internet. While the 'Biomimicry Examples' engine might just return 7 hits, this engine will return 40,000. The beauty of this is that it helps you widen your search parameters, see new ideas, and gives you a bit more of a mountain of data to sort through that is highly likely to have some rich information. I use this one more often in my work to start to dig into new areas.
The relief of not knowing
We use the practice of biomimicry here at LikoLab to develop our sense of what is possible, and what questions we should be asking of our designs. Part of that practice is getting outside to hone our skills. When we go for a walk in the woods, at least for work, it's to find what makes us go hmmmmm. We don't worry right away if it will fit into a framework or tell us anything related to the design challenges of the day - these things come later. We just look for what pops up on our radar. Once that worry falls away, then it is much easier to enjoy the moment and be creative with what is at hand.
The power of observation
As we walk our heads are swimming with all kinds of information, questions, and observations. Research shows that the brain is tuned to see patterns, outlines, and shapes rather than a photographic immersive reality. Immersive experiences (like walking in the woods) flood the brain, activate the senses and ask us to make sense of the world. Taking the time to settle into the moment and make some observations can allow the brain to do its magic, and actually see more. Sketching a tree, photographing a slug, or doing a water color of an oyster creates the opportunity to both ponder and focus.
The motivation of curiosity
Captured observations and insights are a launching pad for curiosity. Why does the slug's stalk retract? Does it have bones? What is the mucous made out of? Exploring the depths humanities knowledge becomes easy with biomimicry as you easily bump into questions that have simply never been asked or answered. However, through asking these curious questions you also find the surprises that 3.8 billion years of evolution have created. The slick and sticky nature of slug mucous, or what is hemolymph anyway. You might start to see the way a slug fits into the ecosystem in new ways, as both a decomposer and an incubator of fungi. Pretty soon, a whole world of networked and weird knowledge is built around your observation.
The ease of connecting
When we build our own understanding of these observations and the fabulously strange networks of information that exist we are preparing our brain to see the easy connections. The connected nodes of data can be accessed and translated by our brain more easily. We see how the retracting mechanism of a slug eye stalk might improve surgical cameras. We see how a viscoelastic fluid could reduce tissue tearing, or snags during surgery. We see how having biodegradable cutting instruments that are replaceable might keep patients safer post surgery. And what is certainly true is that we usually see something entirely different than before we set out in the woods - We have built for ourselves a pair of biomimicry goggles.