Christian Long

Robert Full: How Engineers Learn from Evolution

In TED Talks on April 11, 2010 at 11:50 pm

Reflection by CONNOR S.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Robert Full:  How Engineers Learn from Evolution

In this TEDTalk, Robert Full explores nature’s phenomenal creations and how engineers can use them, with a touch of comedy. While most biologists’ answers to unlocking the secrets of nature’s engineering would be biomimicry (which Mary M. wrote a blog post already), Full believes that all that biomimicry is not sufficient; evolution only works to a point where it is just good enough, and engineers are seeking out perfection. Full believes that engineers need only to mimic the advantageous parts of nature, and leave out the unnecessary and difficult parts.

Full points out one of these advantageous features in a note about the legs of most animals; it turns out that most animals have the same springy legs, much like that of a pogo stick. Most robots are stiff and flat, and have a rolling based form of movement. Nature often is curved and bendy, and uses legs as the form of movement. By following nature’s model, robots were developed that did not require sight or touch that could easily maneuver rough terrain, simply by following nature’s “pogo stick” model. These simple, springy legs led to very maneuverable and mobile robots such as the SPRAWL and RHex that could move over rough and difficult terrain.

With robots such as the SPRAWL and RHex, the boundaries rolling robots faced before can be solved with a simple springy leg. Robots like RHex and their ability to maneuver terrain that rolling robots are unable to could make them key parts of recon and exploration in military missions or on NASA expeditions in places such as Mars. Another interesting feature engineers are starting to attempt to mimic are the van der Waals forces (intermolecular attractions) of the gecko. Already small robots that can move from the floor to the wall to the ceiling work, and can only improve from there on.

The power of selective biomimicry allows engineers to save time and take already designed parts of natural engineering. Advantageous features such as the design of organisms’ legs have allowed us to easily discover a model for a bouncy, mobile leg that can traverse difficult terrain. We now have the ability to create robots that can climb up walls. Eventually, perhaps these can be combined and be used to perform military scouting missions without risking the lives of soldiers. These robots could survive the harsh conditions of space that humans cannot, and could explore planets like Mars. By mimicking the blueprints nature has already left us, we can perfect them and tailor them to suit our own needs without wasting time and effort to find a starting point.


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