Robo-Whiskers And Three Other Cool, Creepy, Animal-Inspired Machines

Inventors, designers and engineers are constantly cribbing from Mother Nature, building new-school robots inspired by old-school biology. Let’s take a look at some of the latest, greatest, and weirdest designs that use biomimicry to give animal capabilities to machines.

Electronic Whiskers

Researchers at the Berkeley Lab created artificial electronic whiskers out of a composite of carbon nanotubes and silver nanoparticles. Inspired by the way mammals use their whiskers to navigate around obstacles and detect air movement, these flexible nanotubes can sense pressure changes as tiny as one Pascal. That’s the amount of pressure a dollar bill exerts on a tabletop, not to mention 10 times as sensitive as any previous pressure-sensor technology.

The research team, led by U.C. Berkeley research professor Ali Javey, has already shown that the e-whiskers can map the 2D and 3D movement of air with amazing accuracy. Applications could include tactile sensors for robots operating in tight spaces or wearable medical sensors.

Penguin-Inspired Propulsion

Penguins look a little ungainly waddling around on land, but in the water they’re tuxedo-wearing torpedoes. Aerodynamics professor Flavio Noca took inspiration from the polar paddlers, designing a water propulsion system based on the spherical joint and fixed center of rotation found in a penguin’s shoulder and wing. Unlike nature’s wing, though, the mechanical flapper can also spin like a propeller, and the stabilizing arms around the ball joint give rigidity that a typical penguin (or for that matter, human) shoulder could only dream of.

Researchers still don’t fully understand how penguins swim so swiftly. But Noca hopes this mechanical model will help us understand the physics of the penguin’s underwater flight, and impart that swiftness to swimming machines.

Plant-Based Swimming Mini-Bots

Not every biomimetic bot takes its inspiration from animals. These nano-scale titanium and nickel swimmers take their helical shape from the spirally arranged, water-conducting vessels found in many types of plants. In fact, researchers at the University of California, San Diego created the microswimmers by depositing thin metal layers on spiral vessels harvested from plants.

In the presence of a magnetic field, these tiny swimmers can efficiently self-propel through biological fluids. Since they’re constructed using plant specimens, the magnetic swimmers are cheap to produce, making large-scale production of medical micro-robots a feasible goal.

Grippy Gecko-Like Feet

This one’s been around for a while, but it’s still fascinating. A Stanford team discovered that sticky surfaces don’t need to have a coating of gooey glop: looking at geckos, they found that the tiny lizards have feet covered in millions of branching microscopic hairs, one thousand times narrower than a human hair at their finest points. These hairs create directional adhesion, letting the gecko grab and release from surfaces with ease.

Stickybot, shown above, uses the same principle on a bigger scale, with feet coated in strands about four times the thickness of a human hair. The bot sticks best to smooth surfaces like glass, but with some development it could lead to machines that repair underwater equipment or scale skyscrapers to wash windows.