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Podcast: Robert Full: Learning from the gecko's tail

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Podcast length: 11 minutes 54 seconds

Podcast Description

This podcast comes from TED 2009, and consists of biologist Robert Full sharing his discoveries about the gesko: its sticky feet, its superstong tail, and about the engineering principles behind them. Engineering prinicples we could stand to learn from, as we create ever more useful robotic systems.

Presenter Biographies

Robert Full

Robert Full is fascinated with cockroach legs that allow them to scuttle at full speed across loose mesh and gecko feet that have billions of nano-bristles to run straight up walls. He's using his research to design the perfect robotic "distributed foot," adding spines, hairs and other parts to metal legs and creating versatile scampering machines. He's helped create robots, such as Spinybot, which can walk up sheer glass like a gecko -- and he even helped Pixar create more realistic insect animations in the film A Bug's Life.

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39.7 MB

Podcast viewing notes

This talk opens with a short discussion of biomutualism. That is to say, a two-way symbiosis between biology and another field such that both fields advance one another.

After that, the presenter looks at biomimetics - how the creations of humans tend towards mimicking nature. In particular, the tendency for robots to move this way. He argues that biomutualism is the way to go about the merging of biomimetics and robots, as the result is holistic - does not belong strictly in either field.

He in fact argues that ultimately, an approach like this creates something that is better than nature.

After the first minute of introductions, the presentation moves on to the unusual toes of the gecko, being examined from both a biological and an engineering standpoint. The geckos use these toes to climb up walls at running speeds.

Biologically what studies found is that each toe is split into many leaf like formations; each leaf has hundreds of tiny hairs, and each hair has a thousand 'split ends'. A couple of universities have already made materials that replicate these properties - the same nanoscale structures present on the natural formation, and on both artificial substances.

At 2:30 one of the substances is demonstrated, with climber Lynn Verinsky climbing 60 feet up a vertical, smooth, concrete wall using only paddles coated in this material for grip, and a slack safety rope just in case. That proved the material worked exactly the same as in nature. She moved slowly, but then the paddles were quite cumbersome.

A problem when robots are outfitted is they get stuck just fine, but they cannot unstick themselves. For a solution, again, turn to the gecko; examine how it does it - peeling the toes back. A robot was constructed, using this same toe peeling technique, replicated exactly. When shown at 3:50, it was possible to see how it worked. Small, like a gecko, and nimble. At 4:04 a video is shown of work at Stanford using this robot - climbing effortlessly up a wall, up a wardrobe. Smooth wall, rugged wall, horizontal or vertical, it did not matter.

Only possible by directly examining nature, replicating it robotically, and then working to improve upon it. One interesting point found with the gecko-like robots, was the engineers discovered that if they did not have a tail, they fell off the wall. Change nothing else, just add a weighted, dangly tail, and it no-longer falls off, and just climbs happily.

So the engineers asked the biologists if in nature, animals used their tails to climb walls. The biologists' work would help the engineers' improve their own designs along routes that engineering alone, would never have thought of.

The tail turned out to be an active fifth foot, capable of swinging exactly where needed. It was a counterbalance - hence why it was necessary in the robots - and was also used to create a self-righting response unlike anything engineering had ever produced.

At 8:00 we see a prototype robot with a prehensile-ish tail, being used to test the theory that the tail's movements and counterbalance function are 100% responsible for the self-righting mechanism when the gecko falls.

The result of the experiment, performed live at the talk, and videoed in slow motion showed that this was correct. All that is necessary for a self-righting mechanism, whatever angle you start out at, you are upright within 6 feet of falling - is a counterbalancing active tail. That twists everything upright in less than a tenth of a second.

The gecko's tail was even discovered - via wind tunnel experiments, to enable it to glide in a way that engineers knew its body design could not do, and not only glide in controlled flight but use its tail as a rudder, changing direction in the airflow.

This has resulted in the design of robots that can climb in far superior ways, and reinforced the belief that single-discipline research needs to go. Only by working between 'separate' disciplines can quite extraordinary leaps in our technological ability be achieved.

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