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
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
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
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.