Science Update - Biomimetics

The Naked Scientists spoke to Chelsea Wald and Bob Hirshon, AAAS, the Science Society
03 December 2006

Interview with 

Chelsea Wald and Bob Hirshon, AAAS, the Science Society


Bob - This week for the Naked Scientists, we're going to talk about biomimetics, that is, a type of engineering that aims to imitate biological systems. I'll tell you about a new robot snail that could soon be crawling through your intestines, but first, Chelsea tells us what engineers are learning from rats.

Chelsea - In the future, autonomous robots could use artificial whiskers to help them sense their surroundings. In fact, engineers Mitra Hartmann and Joseph Solomon of Northwestern University have built a prototype of robotic whiskers that may work a lot like those on rats. Hartmann says the key is to measure how much the whiskers bend as they sweep across an object.

Mitra - And suppose an object is in close and the whisker rotates into it fast. Well, then the whisker's going to bend a lot very quickly. If the object is far away, and it's rotating at the same speed, then it's not going to bend as much.

Chelsea - Using this system, her team was able to re-create a 3-D image of a face. Aside from helping autonomous robots navigate, the whiskers could check parts on an assembly line, generate 3-D models, or feel for obstructions in pipelines..

Bob - Thanks, Chelsea. And speaking of pipelines, robotic snail may someday crawl through the human intestine to diagnose diseases. According to biomedical engineer Dimitra Dodou at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, such a device could provide a more comfortable alternative to colonoscopy. She says the challenge is finding a way to navigate the intestine's uneven, slippery terrain.

Dimitra - Imagine that you have to move inside a deflated balloon, and it is covered with a lubricated material.

Bob - Rather than fight the lubrication, Dodou and her colleagues sought to imitate the snail, which both sticks to and slides on its trail of slime. They found that chemicals called muco-adhesives created enough friction for a simple device to walk across a pig's intestine. They're also fine-tuning patterns of motion, in order to create a sure-footed prototype robot that still treads lightly on delicate tissue.

Chelsea - Thanks, Bob. We'll be back next week to tell you about the space telescope NASA has planned to replace Hubble. Until then, I'm Chelsea Wald.

Bob - And I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, The Science Society. Back to you, Naked Scientists.


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