Mankind has always looked at nature to solve problems, taking a cue from the solutions that biological systems have refined through natural selection. Some of these systems include; a robotic plant that mimics the mechanics of plant roots, dive underwater to see robots inspired by a fish or octopus, fly through the air like a bird or dragonfly, slither along the ground like a snake or sand lizard or hop around like a kangaroo or cricket. Of all the possibilities, the insects are the ones with the greatest benefit for humanity or could potentially be the doom of mankind. I will even go out on a limb and say they could replace the conventional or nuclear bomb concept because they can be programmed to be selective in their destructions or even worst, autonomous (more on AI in later articles).
Bio-pneumatics is the scientific term for the study and development of robotics that mimic plants, animals and insects in a very organic approach instead of the more rigid mechanical methods used to make humanoid robots. Plantoid robots mimic the characteristics of plants. For example, plant roots have an efficient way of growing out from the base and this action has already been mimicked in European labs. What application would something like this be of value to? Geo-engineering would be interested in this technology for programmed exploration of soils for minerals or water. Medicine could use this technology on the inside of the body as non-evasive diagnostics and repair without going through the circulatory system. Space exploration would have a great benefit of having these plantoid robots on the surface of the Moon or Mars. These tiny plantoids would be used in swarms, much like ants and would communicate with each other for efficiency sake. All robotics need an energy source to recharge their on-board batteries and nuclear energy would be the ideal baseload in any planetary environment.
Swarming is the process of individual entities coming together collectively to accomplish a task. Birds, fish and insects, most notably bees, are what people think of. A swarm of robotic insects could do what the plantoids do but from above the surface. Unlike their big brother, human controlled drones, these autonomous robotic insects can be programmed to avoid crash and burn scenarios by communicating with each other through sensors and are also so small that they can be built like a fly that will bump into something and keep on flying. There are a whole series of ‘collision resilient’ robots that can explore anywhere. While the DOD keeps making drones big and dumb to carry weaponry, the private world is making these flying insects smaller and smarter. However, it is not above the possibility that the DOD will also make these tiny insect robots themselves into lethal weapons to do selective kills. Yes, there is always a dark side of every technologies usage.
The one area where robotics has taken a major advancement in technology is underwater based soft robotics. Underwater robotics has to be water proof so the traditional mechanical approach won’t work well. The octopus was the inspiration for soft robotics that use a rubber like material for its shape and propulsion system using contraction and expansion to move the water through it or around it without moving parts. Soft robotics is not pre-design for a specific task and can adapt its configuration according to its surrounding environment.
At some point in this article series, I will have to reference some very technical writing to explain what a video can easily do in seconds. For example, Robotic origami’s (Robogamis) are low-profile, quasi-2D robots that are soft and reconfigurable because of their multiple DOF (degree-of-freedom) bodies. Makes sense when you see it. More on Robogamis: http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2014/08/09/origami-robots-fold-themselves-and-walk-away/