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March 28, 2013

The art of biomimicry and construction

The idea of biomimicry has been around for less than a decade. In fact, it’s new enough that the word biomimicry isn’t recognized by the spell-check in my word processor.

It’s not an idea that’s easy to explain. It’s not really technology. It’s not really biology. Instead, think of it as the technology of biology and it’s finding its way into building designs and construction materials.

For example, researchers have evolved super-slippery material that copies the way the leaves of carnivorous plants work. A bug lands on the leaf, but finds it can’t get a foothold. Before it can get airborne again, it’s slipped down into the plant’s throat, where digestive juices do their work.

So how does that apply in construction? Well, it has allowed manufacturers to develop coatings for self-cleaning surfaces, so they rarely have to be cleaned. Any grime that has managed to cling to a surface is simply washed away by the next rain. The materials can also be used to coat the interior of pipes, reducing clogs.

Korky Koroluk

A robot has been developed that can climb walls, even walk across a ceiling, because its feet are coated with an adhesive developed after scientists studied the feet of the gecko, an agile little lizard common in tropical climates.

The robot can carry a payload, which means it can be loaded up with a camera, for example, along with a tiny transmitter. It’s likely to be useful for inspecting hard-to-reach areas in buildings, on bridges, are anywhere else that needs to be inspected from time to time.

Spiders have a knack for getting into all sorts of small crevasses, which is why researchers have based a robot on the shape and movement of spiders. They say it can be used for searches in environments that are too dangerous or difficult for humans to enter, and send back a signal when they find someone. That would be a good tool to have when a building collapses, forming unstable piles of debris. Nice, too, for interior inspections in case of nuclear accidents.

I got to thinking about all these things after reading about the development, at Harvard University, of what they’re calling RoboBees. Scientists there have built a robotic bee about the size of an ordinary honeybee, and now are working on a swarm of the devices in the hope they will be able to pollinate crops.

That’s a concern, because the bee population — including honeybees — is in decline, and they’re needed to pollinate many food crops. No bees, no pollination, no crop.

Scientists have built a few of the RoboBees. Now they’re working on methods to make thousands of the tiny machines co-operate like real bees in a real hive. If they are successful at that, it means that a swarm of robots could be deployed to accomplish tasks faster, more reliably, and more efficiently than a single could. And it could go well beyond pollinating fruit trees.

Swarms could also be used for searches in collapsed buildings, or exploring strange but hazardous environments. They could even be used to monitor car traffic in cities.

There is another robot under development, this one at the Fraunhoffer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics, in Germany

Researchers there have built 50 autonomous vehicles they call Multishuttle Moves robots for warehouse work. The software that runs them mimics the behaviour of common garden ants in their search for food.

The vehicles are connected by a local area network. When an order is received, they communicate with one another via their network to decide which shuttle can take the job.

The payoff would be quicker and more accurate order filling.

If you’re interested in learning more about biomimicry, you might visit www.biomimicry.net, where you’ll find, among other things, an informative (and brief) video

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to editor@dailycommercialnews.com

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