Bio-mimitics and bio-robotics a new philosophy in human-machine interaction

Industrial Robot

ISSN: 0143-991x

Article publication date: 1 June 2000


Caldwell, D. (2000), "Bio-mimitics and bio-robotics a new philosophy in human-machine interaction", Industrial Robot, Vol. 27 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Bio-mimitics and bio-robotics a new philosophy in human-machine interaction

Bio-mimitics and bio-robotics a new philosophy in human-machine interaction

Darwin Caldwell

Three-hundred-and-fifty years ago Descartes questioned the nature of the boundaries between the animal kingdom and mechanisms. With the advance of technology this is now much more than a philosophical argument and it is now suggested that in the not too distant future robots will be expected to work with humans to support our everyday activities. In such instances, safety and affinity must be assured and this may require a fundamental change in our machine design strategies and our understanding of what is machine and what is a biologically inspired entity.

"Solid" mechanical engineering has been the foundation of robotic and indeed most mechatronic design philosophies, but there is now a growing awareness of a need to move the traditional boundaries. Not by replacing the rigor of the process but in the construction and operation of the mechanisms.

Within this traditional design context our primary goals have been the construction of structures and mechanisms that can accurately be predicted and due to the historic limitations of our skills in mathematics and control theory this has by and large required heavy rigid metal structures devoid of flexibility. However, it has always been clear that lighter more flexible materials could give fundamental improvements in performance and cost, if the difficulties of using the materials safely and predictably could be addressed. Essentially the requirement is to organise some higher level of "intelligence" into the structures - a process that is increasingly becoming a common feature of SMART structures. It is also instructive to realise that this use of light flexible structures, compliant drives and distributed "intelligence" is a fundamental principle of the organisation of biological systems, and obtaining a fuller understanding of the organic perspective may enhance our own design skills.

This growing appreciation of the benefits of "softness" combined with increased abilities to predict and control system behaviour, and advances in the integration of electronic monitoring and control systems into structures has led to an increasing awareness of biologically inspired systems. This is particularly true in the developing field of bio-robotics or bio-mimitics.

What are the benefits?

The aim of a bio-mimetic approach to system design is not the creation of science fiction but an exploration of the potential of biological and mechanical technology and thereby combining the attributes of both. In essence, it is an exchange of ideas and potential benefits from areas that previously would have been at odds with each other. Systems based on these principles will emphasize the need for safety, redundancy, self-repair and affinity, and the benefit of softness in the machines, both in terms of functional softness and physical softness.

What technologies are needed?

To build mechanisms to this format requires that advances in technology in such areas as materials, mechanisms, electronics, sensors, controls, intelligence, communication, and power sources must be integrated together. Key research topics for each component technology will be

  • Mechanical structure - this concerns both the physical structure of the robot and the materials to be used in construction, to provide low mass, with good strength and flexibility. Directions that this requirement may take will include: composite materials, artificial skins, and sensor implanted soft materials.

  • The sensors needed by robotic systems mainly fall into three categories:

    • - environmental - these establish the working environment for the robot;

    • - internal - sensors to monitor the state of the machine;

    • - task specific sensors - designed to help the machine carry out its particular work package. This is an area that will form a fundamental development theme of bio-mimetic systems and features that may form part of this technology development may include: real-time stereo vision, distributed multi-modal tactile/force/temperature sensors, sense of slip, and MEMs sensors.

  • Intellectual capacity - this is an area of contention as to the nature of intelligence, however, the question of what is the "true" character of intelligence does not detract from recognition of the skills that can be considered valuable in enhancing robotic intellectual performance. These will include: cognitive abilities, memory, learning, association, recognition, and inference.

  • Mechanisms - the range of systems that can be considered under any heading of mechanisms is large and extremely diverse, but among the key opportunities in this domain will exist needs for new actuators, drives, and micro machine/manipulation technology, MEMS (micro electro-mechanical), and micro-fabrication.

  • Communication - within future robotic systems a number of communication aspects will be revealed involving internal communication, e.g. parallel v. serial, bus format and communications protocols, and external communication, e.g. data communication to external systems, robot-robot and robot-human communication, and speech recognition.

  • Control - as with communications there are several aspects to control, starting at the actuator and developing through motion planning and trajectory control to full system co-ordination and even including the potential for intelligence. The complexity of systems will permit and require the development of a wide and diverse range of controllers from traditional control strategies to biologically inspired neural and fuzzy systems.

  • Power source - this concerns the storage, generation and delivery of power to the robot. Most robotic applications favour electrical drives with some limited use of hydraulic and pneumatic cylinders. Whether this will remain so for future robotic systems working in external environments as well as the traditional factory leaves scope for exploration. At least all potential actuation systems will require new improved power sources that can provide light weight, high density, long life and large capacity, e.g. improved batteries, fuel cells, chemo-pneumatic power.

To many the idea of combining biological design with mechanical design may appear at best speculative. However, it is important to see the demands not simply as a goal of robotics but generic advanced technology. As such many if not most of the ideas mirror the requirements outlined in a recent UK DTI/BARA report on the future of robotics.

The future

Looking to the East and Japan in particular many of the concepts suggested have started to take root in the form of "grand robotic challenges" that have included:

  • Humanoid robots. By integrating all the state of the art techniques in robotics, the goal is the creation of an artefact similar to the human shape and size. Much of the importance of this task, clearly evident in the Honda Humanoid Robot projects, is in revealing which aspects of technology are near the target, and which are still far away. Pessimistically, the field of mechanisms, actuators, distributed sensors, and skins are not yet felt to be adequately advanced.

  • R-Cube. R-Cube (R3) is the acronym of real-time remote robotics. It is defined as advanced remote control technology, which enables the operation of a robot's control unit via a communications network. Goals of the project include exploration of disaster relief, assistive social activity for elderly or handicapped people, home working. R-Cube technology is not simply seen as remote control, rather it must be strongly supported by very advanced intelligent autonomous functions. The key for making R-Cube technology successful is believed to be research on highly advanced real-time intelligent autonomy.

  • Remote brained approach. A robot consists of its computational controller and a mechanical structure. The remote brained robot is constructed by separating the computer controller from the mechanism with information exchange through a radio link. Sensor information collected by the controller is returned to the remote processing centre for extensive number crunching. It is suggested that the use of this remote intelligence concept has the following merits.

    • Mechanism and software are interfaced through a standard input/output specification, and concurrent development of mechanism and software are made possible.

    • Motion of the whole body is physically free from controller devices, as the body and computer are connected by wireless link instead of real wires.

    • Wireless connection gives no constraint and has no effect on the dynamic properties of robot motion.

    • As computer and body are connected by a radio link, you can use any kind of computers as controllers, from super computer to micro CPU as you wish.