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Robotics Researchers Look To Animals To Make The Perfect Bots

Animals have many of the characteristics of the brilliantly useful machines scientists would like to create: flexibility, adaptability, instinctive intelligence ...

Harvard's RoboBee project
Harvard's RoboBee project
Frank Niedercorn

PARIS — The little robot moves on unperturbed despite just being run over by a sport utility vehicle. Unlike similar machines with rigid structures, this one created by teams from the Harvard School of Engineering and Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering has a soft body made of a mix of rubber and silicone and strengthened with synthetic fibers. It moves on four legs articulated by rubber activators, like something between an insect and a snail. It is just one of the many examples of robots inspired by animals, whose characteristics are of increasing interest to researchers.

Suppleness, for example, is a whole new field in robotics, and researchers are no longer satisfied with the combination of metal and plastic. "A soft palm helps the hand catch objects, because it molds around them," says Pierre-Yves Oudeyer, head of research at Inria in France. As for the heels, he adds, "They can stock up energy needed for human movement."

In any case, the soft parts of a robot are less prone to breaking, says Mike Tolley, head of bio-inspired robotics at the University of San Diego. Robots with a soft body "have an attractive future with a range of applications, from civilian security, to rescuing people and as medical devices," he says. "In fact, in any area where robots interact with people and security is an issue."

Scientists are also fascinated by the exceptional faculties of certain creatures, like a fly's visual acumen. Its eyes have just a few thousand pixels and its brain one million neurons, so how can it still fly in an unfamiliar world without bumping into things?

[rebelmouse-image 27088713 alt="""" original_size="1024x768" expand=1]

Photo: Tanozzo

A fly calculates neither its speed nor its altitude to adapt its trajectory, but instead estimates its position thanks to a visual flow provided by the speed at which it flies past objects.

Doing more with less

Nature's lesson, says Stéphane Viollet from the Institute of the Science of Mobility at Aix-Marseilles, is that "you can do much with few resources." Viollet heads the biorobotics team at the Institute, which has developed an electronic eye inspired by flies. It is low-resolution, lightweight and low-cost, and interesting to industry. Viollet says it could one day be fixed onto tiny drones to improve their ability to stay still in mid-air or "fly in town, between buildings when you cannot use a GPS."

Robotics experts understand that the perfect machine "will remain a dream for a long time," says Pierre-Yves Oudeyer. "Every animal is particularly adapted to a specific environment, so the idea of conceiving a universal machine that can do any task, in any environment, is an illusion," he says. But animals may also help find a solution to that, especially "social" insects like ants, bees or termites.

"These societies are considered vast nervous systems wherein individuals are neurons interacting to elaborate a common project," say Anne Guillot and Jean-Arcady Meyer in the 2014 French book Poulpe Fiction: When Animals Inspire Innovation(2014). So while each individual member has "limited brain matter, they manage to make complex constructions without the intervention of a supervisor-architect."

[rebelmouse-image 27088714 alt="""" original_size="600x933" expand=1]

"Swarm" robots are another crucial area of robotics research. The European Swarm-bots project, coordinated by Lausanne Polytechnic, makes little robots on wheels that work together on complex tasks, like lifting a heavy object. Labri, a Bordeaux IT research institute, is doing something similar with drones. The aim is make drones that collaborate in flexible surveillance operations. If one drone had to return to base, the others would reconfigure themselves to pursue the task without it, says Serge Chaumette, a Labri professor. "These scenarios cannot be implemented today due to flying regulations that require an operator for each machine. We hope to make the situation evolve with our work," he says.

This is really the beginning of collaborative work between robots. The Bordeaux researchers are working with colleagues in Télécom Bretagne on the Daisie project, financed by the French state, to make drones that will collaborate to find objects on the ground. Or to make land robots that explore terrain and communicate with the robot next to them, creating a potentially unlimited chain of communications. The benefits are numerous: The robots are cheaper because each is relatively simple. They can be spread over a relatively large surface area, and are tough and flexible. The French army is interested in these.

These swarm robots could in the future shrink and start looking like the RoboBee developed at Harvard: two centimeters in length, three wide and weighing just a tenth of a gram. What's the use of the carbon-fiber RoboBee, which can flap its wings 120 times a second thanks to a piezoelectric device? It could visit space and especially the planet Mars, where craft with fixed wings find it difficult to fly, says Jean-Arcady Meyer. Or, one day, they may have to replace real bees and ensure the planet's survival by pollinating the fields.

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The Unsustainable Future Of Fish Farming — On Vivid Display In Turkish Waters

Currently, 60% of Turkey's fish currently comes from cultivation, also known as fish farming, compared to just 10% two decades ago. The short-sightedness of this shift risks eliminating fishing output from both the farms and the open seas along Turkey's 5,200 miles of coastline.

Photograph of two fishermen throwing a net into the Tigris river in Turkey.

Traditional fishermen on the Tigris river, Turkey.

Dûrzan Cîrano/Wikimeidia
İrfan Donat

ISTANBUL — Turkey's annual fish production includes 515,000 tons from cultivation and 335,000 tons came from fishing in open waters. In other words, 60% of Turkey's fish currently comes from cultivation, also known as fish farming.

It's a radical shift from just 20 years ago when some 600,000 tons, or 90% of the total output, came from fishing. Now, researchers are warning the current system dominated by fish farming is ultimately unsustainable in the country with 8,333 kilometers (5,177 miles) long.

Professor Mustafa Sarı from the Maritime Studies Faculty of Bandırma 17 Eylül University believes urgent action is needed: “Why were we getting 600,000 tons of fish from the seas in the 2000’s and only 300,000 now? Where did the other 300,000 tons of fish go?”

Professor Sarı is challenging the argument from certain sectors of the industry that cultivation is the more sustainable approach. “Now we are feeding the fish that we cultivate at the farms with the fish that we catch from nature," he explained. "The fish types that we cultivate at the farms are sea bass, sea bram, trout and salmon, which are fed with artificial feed produced at fish-feed factories. All of these fish-feeds must have a significant amount of fish flour and fish oil in them.”

That fish flour and fish oil inevitably must come from the sea. "We have to get them from natural sources. We need to catch 5.7 kilogram of fish from the seas in order to cultivate a sea bream of 1 kg," Sarı said. "Therefore, we are feeding the fish to the fish. We cannot cultivate fish at the farms if the fish in nature becomes extinct. The natural fish need to be protected. The consequences would be severe if the current policy is continued.”

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