A human hand holds a stack of several plexiglass sheets with needles glued into the ends. Very faint lines can be seen in the transparent stackup.

Biomimetic Building Facades To Reduce HVAC Loads

Buildings currently consume about 50% of the world’s electricity, so finding ways to reduce the loads they place on the grid can save money and reduce carbon emissions. Scientists at the University of Toronto have developed an “optofluidic” system for tuning light coming into a building.

The researchers devised a biomimetic system inspired by the multi-layered skins of squid and chameleons for active camouflage to be able to actively control light intensity, spectrum, and scattering independently. While there are plenty of technologies that can regulate these properties, doing so independently has been too complicated a task for current window shades or electrochromic devices.

To make the prototype devices (15 × 15 × 2 cm), 3 mm PMMA sheets were stacked after millifluidic channels (1.5 mm deep and 6.35 mm wide) were CNC milled into the sheets. Fluids could be injected and removed by needles glued into the ends of the channels. By using different fluids in the channels, researchers were able to tune various aspects of the incoming light. Scaled up, one application of the system could be to keep buildings cooler on hot days without keeping out IR on colder days which is one disadvantage of static window coatings currently in use.

If you want to control some of the light going OUT of your windows, maybe you should try building this smart LED curtain instead?

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Biomimetic Surfaces: Copying Nature To Deter Bacteria And Keep Ship Hulls Smooth

You might not think that keeping a boat hull smooth in the water has anything in common with keeping a scalpel clean for surgery, but there it does: in both cases you’re trying to prevent nature — barnacles or biofilm — from growing on a surface. Science has looked to nature, and found that the micro-patterning formed by the scales of certain sharks or the leaves of lotus plants demonstrate a highly elegant way to prevent biofouling that we can copy.

In the case of marine growth attaching to and growing on a ship’s hull, the main issue is that of increased drag. This increases fuel usage and lowers overall efficiency of the vessel, requiring regular cleaning to remove this biofouling. In the context of a hospital, this layer of growth becomes even more crucial. Each year, a large number of hospital patients suffer infections, despite the use of single-use catheters and sterile packaging.

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Flexures Make Robotic Fingers Simpler To Print

Designing an anthropomorphic robotic hand seems to make a lot of sense — right up until the point that you realize just how complex the human hand is. What works well in bone and sinew often doesn’t translate well to servos and sensors, and even building a single mechanical finger can require dozens of parts.

Or, if you’re as clever about things as [Adrian Perez] is, only one part. His print-in-place robotic finger, adorably dubbed “Fingie,” is a huge step toward simplifying anthropomorphic manipulators. Fingie is printed in PLA and uses flexures for the three main joints of the finger, each of which consists of two separate and opposed coil springs. The flexures allow the phalanges to bend relative to each other in response to the motion of three separate tendons that extend through a channel on the palmar aspect of the finger, very much like the real thing.

The flexures eliminate the need for bearings at each joint and greatly decrease the complexity of the finger, but the model isn’t perfect. As [Adrian] points out, the off-center attachment for the tendons makes the finger tend to curl when the joints are in flexion, which isn’t how real fingers work. That should be a pretty easy fix, though. And while we appreciate the “one and done” nature of this print, we’d almost like to see the strap-like print-in-place tendons replaced with pieces of PLA filament added as a post-processing step, to make the finger more compact and perhaps easier to control.

Despite the shortcomings, and keeping in mind that this is clearly a proof of concept, we really like where [Adrian] is going with this, and we’re looking forward to seeing a hand with five Fingies, or four Fingies and a Thumbie. It stands to be vastly simpler than something like [Will Cogley]’s biomimetic hand, which while an absolute masterpiece of design, is pretty daunting for most of us to reproduce.

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An illustration of jellyfish swimming in the ocean by Rebecca Konte. The jellyfish are wearing cones on their "heads" to streamline their swimming that contain some sort of electronics inside.

The Six Million Dollar Jellyfish

What if you could rebuild a jellyfish: better, stronger, faster than it was before? Caltech now has the technology to build bionic jellyfish.

Studying the ocean given its influence on the rest of the climate is an important scientific task, but the wild pressure differences as you descend into the eternal darkness make it a non-trivial engineering problem. While we’ve sent people to the the deepest parts of the ocean, submersibles are much too expensive and risky to use for widespread data acquisition.

The researchers found in previous work that making a cyborg jellyfish was more effective than biomimetic jellyfish robots, and have now given the “biohybrid robotic jellyfish” a 3D-printed, neutrally buoyant, swimming cap. In combination with the previously-developed “pacemaker,” these cyborg jellyfish can explore the ocean (in a straight line) at 4.5x the speed of a conventional moon jelly while carrying a scientific payload. Future work hopes to make them steerable like the well-known robo-cockroaches.

If you’re interested in some other attempts to explore Earth’s oceans, how about drift buoys, an Open CTD, or an Open ROV? Just don’t forget to keep the noise down!

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Mapping of the displacement of a tympanum of the lesser wax moth (Achroia grisella). (Credit: Andrew Reid)

3D Printing Bio-Inspired Microphone Designs Based On Moth Ears

If many millions of years of evolution is good for anything, it is to develop microscopic structures that perform astounding tasks, such as the marvelous biology of insects. One of these structures are the ears of the lesser wax moth (Achroia grisella), whose mating behavior involves ultrasonic mating calls. These can attract the bats which hunt them, leading to these moths having evolved directional hearing that can pinpoint not only a potential mate, but also bat calling sound.

What’s most astounding about this is that these moths that only live about a week as an adult can perform auditory feats that we generally require an entire microphone array for, along with a lot of audio processing. The key that enables these moths to perform these feats lies in their eardrum, or tympanum. Rather than the taut, flat surface as with mammals, these feature intricate 3D structures along with pores that seem to perform much of the directional processing, and this is what researchers have been trying to replicate for a while, including a team of researchers at the University of Strathclyde.

To create these artificial tympanums, the researchers used a flexible hydrogel, with a piezoelectric material that converts the acoustic energy into electric signals, connected to electrical traces. The 3D features are printed on this, mixed with methanol that forms droplets inside the curing resin, before being expelled and leaving the desired pores. One limitation is that currently used printers have a limited resolution of about 200 micrometers, which doesn’t cover the full features of the insect’s tympanum.

Assuming this can be made to work, it could be used for everything from cochlear implants to anywhere else that has a great deal of audio processing that needs downsizing.

(Heading image: Mapping of the displacement of a tympanum of the lesser wax moth (Achroia grisella). (Credit: Andrew Reid) )

That Drone Up In The Sky? It Might Be Built Out Of A Dead Bird

In a lot of ways, it seems like we’re in the “plateau of productivity” part of the hype cycle when it comes to drones. UAVs have pretty much been reduced to practice and have become mostly an off-the-shelf purchase these days, with a dwindling number of experimenters pushing the envelope with custom builds, like building drones out of dead birds.

These ornithopomorphic UAVs come to us from the New Mexico Insitute of Mining and Technology, where [Mostafa Hassanalian] runs the Autonomous Flight and Aquatic Systems lab. While looking into biomimetics, [Dr. Hassanalian] hit upon the idea of using taxidermy birds as an airframe for drones. He and his team essentially reverse-engineered the birds to figure out how much payload they’d be able to handle, and added back the necessary components to make them fly again.

From the brief video in the tweet embedded below, it’s clear that they’ve come up with a huge variety of feathered drones. Some are clearly intended for testing the aerodynamics of taxidermy wings in makeshift wind tunnels, while others are designed to actually fly. Propulsion seems to run the gamut from bird-shaped RC airplanes with a propeller mounted in the beak to true ornithopters. Some of the drones clearly have a conventional fuselage with feathers added, which makes sense for testing various subsystems, like wings and tails.

It’s easy to mock something like this, and the jokes practically write themselves. But when you think about it, the argument for a flying bird-shaped robot is pretty easy to make from an animal behavior standpoint. If you want to study how birds up close while they’re flying, what better way than to send in a robot that looks similar to the other members of the flock? And besides, evolution figured out avian flight about 150 million years ago, so studying how birds do it is probably going to teach us something.

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Miles The Spider Robot

Who doesn’t love robotic spiders? Today’s biomimetic robot comes in the form of Miles, the quadruped spider robot from [_Robox].

Miles uses twelve servos to control its motion, three on each of its legs, and also includes a standard HC-SR04 ultrasonic distance sensor for some obstacle avoidance capabilities. Twelve servos can use quite a bit of power, so [_Robox_] had to power Miles with six LM7805 ICs to get sufficient current. [_Robox_] laser cut acrylic sheets for Miles’s body but mentions that 3D printing would work as well.

Miles uses inverse kinematics to get around, which we’ve seen in a previous project and is a pretty popular technique for controlling robotic motion. The Instructable is a little light on the details, but the source code is something to take a look at. In addition to simply moving around [_Robox_] developed code to make Miles dance, wave, and take a bow. That’s sure to be a hit at your next virtual show-and-tell.

By now you’re saying “wait, spiders have eight legs”, and of course you’re right. But that’s an awful lot of servos. Anyway, if you’d rather 3D print your four-legged spider, we have a suggestion.