From butterflies to maple seed pods, drones are increasingly being modeled after the natural world to expand their capabilities. This process of imitating nature is known as biomimicry — a field of research that Morgan Pope is very familiar with.
Pope, a Ph.D. student working in mechanical engineering at Stanford’s Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Lab, has helped develop various robotics projects inspired by the animal kingdom.
“As robots move out of the laboratory and the factory and into the unstructured world, nature provides an incredibly rich library of solutions to the complex problems we face,” he says.
The sort of problems Pope and his research team attempt to tackle are all too familiar to UAS pilots: battery life, difficult flight environments, obstructions and the list goes on. But instead of simply trying to improve existing tech, the lab developed SCAMP, The Stanford Climbing and Aerial Maneuvering Platform.
SCAMP can fly, perch, crawl and climb, and is the culmination of years of research conducted by various universities.
The landing mechanisms are partially modeled after the feet of geckos, allowing SCAMP to stick to rough and smooth vertical surfaces. Perching and climbing, inspired by the legs on insects, enable the drone to locate a secure and safe place to hang on walls.
And each adaptation allows for new applications. Whether perched on a tree in the rainforest or clinging to the side of a building in a disaster site, SCAMP is ideal for both collecting data and monitoring environments.
The Key is Understanding
It might seem simple to just copy nature, but it’s not that straightforward. It’s not so much about the “how” as it is the “why” of how the biology works, according to Pope. Once an understanding of the “why” is reached, then the real work begins. He explains that this shift is one of the most exciting parts of the research — moving from biomimicry to what Pope and his teammates call biounderstanding or bioinspiration.
And that process of understanding is exactly what’s happening in the lab at Stanford, which allows researchers to create effective and innovative technology.
Pope explains that the team struggled to imitate the gripping mechanism of a gecko’s foot. At first, they were too focused on the tiny, adhesive “hairs” on the feet as opposed to why those hairs worked.
“Once we understood that the key was having a contact area that changed size when it was pulled in the right direction,” Pope says, “we were able to create working patterns that we could manufacture right here in our lab.”
He explains that the natural world has been tackling the issue of effective locomotion much longer than human engineers, which is why natural adaptations often appear in tech. “By looking to nature, where animals use remarkable combinations of senses, instincts, and body shapes to do amazing things, we can find shortcuts to develop similarly exciting skills for our robots,” Pope says.