The year in biomimicry: Robots inspired by cheetahs and moon jellies

It’s time for the fourth annual Tommies, my list of notable bio-inspired ideas of 2012. As always, I have organized the list by the organisms that inspired the inventions or discoveries. Let me know if you have a favorite I might have missed. You can find the Tommies from 2011 here, the 2010 list here, and the 2009 awards here.

1. The cheetah: Boston Dynamics, a private company with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense DARPA Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program, has made and tested the world’s fastest land robot, a four-legged machine based on the African cat. Critical to the performance was the mimicking of the flexible spine of the Cheetah, which allows for hyperextension, and the coordination of the striding legs.

The machine recently set the land speed record for robots at 28.3 mph, faster than the world’s fastest human (Usain Bolt at 27.8 mph over 100 yards in 2009). The robot is not autonomous: An off-board hydraulic pump and a boom power and steady it as it runs on a treadmill. A free-running version, powered by a gasoline engine, is planned. When it does begin trials, it will still be far behind its natural mentor, which can reach speeds of up to 70 mph. All-terrain robots that are fast and reliable would be a distinct tactical advantage to military ground forces, and could be used for other hazardous work like disaster relief and medical rescue.

2. The sunflower: Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and RWTH Aachen University have studied the geometrical array of sunflower florets and used the information they gained to improve the efficiency of a concentrated solar power (CSP) plant, PS10, in Andalusia, Spain.

In a CSP, ground mounted mirrors reflect and concentrate sunlight onto a central tower where water is boiled by the resultant heat to make steam for generators. One drawback of this sustainable energy production method is the large amount of land area needed for the mirror array. The team designed the array with a Fermat spiral pattern in which each mirror was angled at 137 degrees. This arrangement resulted in a 20 percent space savings by simply changing the geometry of the layout.

3. Bacteria: University of Oxford scientists have developed a process to manufacture a superglue for nanoscale molecular construction. The glue was inspired by  a unique protein, FbaB, that is produced by Streptococcus pyogenes, the same germ that can cause strep throat. The protein has a 3D structure that is stabilized by strong covalent bonds, and the researchers were able to manufacture a new, engineered version that is simpler and smaller. They were able to split this bond into its two parts and rejoin them at will, like a two-part glue. The bond is fast and irreversible, as strong as a carbon nanotube, and highly resistant to time, stress and chemicals. Itis not affected by temperature or pH. Importantly, the bond only sticks to itself and not to other molecular surfaces, so is very controllable.

The discovery has wide potential application for the biomedical field. It appears to be an important new fabrication tool in the development of modular molecular construction, the assembling of proteins and enzymes like a set of Legos. This could be used to assemble nanofactories, or be used in tissue reconstruction.  It may be more immediately important in research, though, since synthetic structures could be attached to working parts of cells without damaging them, or being disengaged by them.

4. The brittlestar: Chemists from the University of Konstanz, the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, and two Korean institutions have developed a process for the simplified manufacture of microlens arrays. These are found naturally on the Brittlestar, a sea creature related to the starfish.

The Brittlestar is known for its self-assembly of biomineral lenses from calcium carbonate from surrounding seawater. It uses these arrays to change color according to light conditions. The scientists used a saturated calcium solution, carbon dioxide from air and a broadly available surfactant (a soap molecule), to “grow” the array of hemispherical lenses. The techniques of close-packing and self-assembly greatly improved the manufacturing process.

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