Engineers have used biological research to spawn new, groundbreaking technologies instead of the other way around.
In 2006, the Pentagon requested that AeroVironment develop a spy drone that mimicked biology. Five years later in early 2011, AeroVironment – one of the world’s leading drone suppliers - showed off a prototype of its newest invention: the ‘Nano Hummingbird’. This pocket-sized drone cost four million dollars for them to create for the US Army.
Experts designed the remote-controlled Nano Hummingbird, which weighs less than a AA battery, so it can fly solely by flapping its wings instead of relying on propellers as other current models do. With a 6.5-inch
wing span, the “bird” can withstand winds of five miles per hour while flying in any linear direction at speeds of up to 11 miles per hour.
Army chiefs intend to use the hummingbird drone to spy on enemy activities in war zones. According to Todd Hylton of the Pentagon’s research arm, this new drone technology “paves the way for a new generation of aircraft with the agility and appearance of small birds.”
Other such inventions are on their way. Lockheed Martin has developed a .07-ounce spy plane called the whirly bird that mimics the appearance of a maple leaf seed. The whirly bird is complete with high-end imaging sensors and navigation gear.
Earlier this year, Professor Shigang Yue from the University of Lincoln’s School of Computer Science and Dr. Claire Rind from Newcastle University’s Institute of Neuroscience created a novel computerized system
modeled after the way a locust processes visual information.
Locusts have a particularly efficient data processing system built into their biology. They use a distinctive combination of electrical and chemical signals, allowing them a uniquely rapid and accurate warning system
for impending collisions. From this biological information, researchers created a visually stimulated motor control (VSMC) system that processes images and extracts relevant visual clues which are then converted into motor commands.
Prof Yue stated: “This research demonstrates that modeling biologically plausible artificial visual neural systems can provide new solutions for computer vision in dynamic environments.”
Dr. Claire Rind explains that understanding the inner workings of the locust brain has allowed them to create a program that lets a moving robot detect approaching objects and avoid them without the use of radar or infrared detectors, which require heavy-duty equipment and processing.
Both researchers believe their discoveries can provide a blueprint for the development of highly accurate collision avoidance systems, potentially allowing vehicles to sense and avoid a collision. Their work could
also aid surveillance technology and video game programming.
The European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) funded their research, which was part of a collaborative project with the University of Hamburg in Germany as well as Tsinghua University and Xi’an Jiaotong University in China.
These two recent inventions – the hummingbird drone and the simulation of locust vision in robots – have shown that biological research can aid in the development of new technologies. Although scientists have a ways to go before either of these designs can be used outside the laboratory, their existence is historic.
Peter W. Singer, author of the book “Wired for War”, about robotic warfare, believes that robotics are becoming a greater part of everyday life.
In reference to emerging designs such as the hummingbird drone, Singer said, "It's the equivalent to the advent of the printing press, the computer, gun powder. It's that scale of change."