Tuna Fish, Seal Whiskers, BigDog, and Bio-Inspired Robotics in the Military


"Biologically-inspired robotics" is a term that has gathered a lot of attention as of recently. Simply put, it is robotics that draws aspects of its mechanisms or structure from nature. Bio-inspired robotics and soft robotics overlap with each other due to a huge proportion of organic mechanisms are composed of soft material. Super-Releaser is quite interested in using biology as inspiration for robotics (some of our robots have even been named after real organisms). The military is also interested, and has been funding experimental bio-inspired robotics research.

A great example, specifically of the Navy's interest in bio-inspired robotics, is the research of Heather Beem, which was funded by the Office of Naval Research. Beem's work delved into how seals use their whiskers to detect small changes in water currents and how similar methods can be applied to robotic sensors. The sensor that was developed out of this research combines smart geometries and compliant mechanisms to detect the water currents created by objects moving in front of it. The sensor sways when pulled through the wake of an object, but moves little when cutting other water currents. By interpreting the movement of the sensor, a computer can find out the approximate size, shape, and direction of the object that the sensor is behind.

Another project in which the U.S. Navy is interested in is an in-depth investigation into why a soft body and a high level of controllable motion in said body allows tuna to swim great distances at fast speeds. Researchers at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center tested the properties of the boundary layers of Bluefin Tuna with a functioning scale model. However, the model was made of a rigid material, resulting in unexpected data. This showed that the "soft" nature of tuna's body plays a large role in their swimming, and that there are valuable lessons to be learned from such factors. The information gained regarding drag and speed in soft hydrodynamic bodies, along with other properties such as sonic behavior, could allow of soft, more energy-efficient, bio-inspired vessels.

A much more well known example of military interest in bio-inspired robotics is in Boston Dynamics' BigDog robot. This project was funded by DARPA, the U.S. Marine Corps, and the U.S. Army. While cars, trucks, and other wheeled vehicles are useful for easily accessible and relatively flat terrain, a legged robot would be ideal for settings without roads, where terrain is unpredictable and potentially dangerous for other forms of transportation. BigDog uses many hydraulic actuators that can move to varying degrees with chosen speed and force, similar to organic muscles. BigDog and quadrupedal robots like it could help soldiers carry large loads through places that otherwise could not have such a task done in them.

These three projects are just a glimpse at the work being done around biologically-inspired robotics in the military. They show that there many difficult problems that could be solved with bio-inspired means. Here at Super-Releaser, we are greatly excited by such work, and encourage engineers, scientists, and designers to look no further than nature for potential solutions.

-Aidan Leitch 

Aidan Leitch