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Japanese engineer sees evolution guiding next wave in robotics

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

What could be the next big thing in technology after the digital revolution?

According to Chuo University engineering professor, the answer could come from Mother Nature.

“Traditionally, people wanted industrial robots to be able to work precisely to help with mass production. But today, demand is high for robots that can live together with people or that can operate in situations where people cannot,” said Taro Nakamura, who has developed several robots modeled on living organisms.

“People are now looking for new knowledge to bring about innovation. And I believe the next paradigm shift will start by learning about nature,” the professor said.

He says his “earthworm robot” is one such innovation. Based on the concept of biomimetics — the imitation of animal and plant characteristics to solve the problems of humans — these robots will be able to do things people cannot, he said.

“Living organisms have evolved over tens of thousands of years to best adapt to various habitats. If we imitate their underlying mechanisms, we can develop robots that are suited to work under extreme conditions,” he said.

His earthworm robot has numerous segments made with artificial muscles in its tubular body, each expanding and contracting to move it forward just as an earthworm moves.

This minimizes the space robots need to move, allowing them, for example, to inspect pipes without getting stuck.

“Many gas pipes underground need to be replaced due to aging, but people cannot examine them because there are too many bends for conventional endoscopic cameras to go through,” he said. “But earthworm robots can easily turn the sharp corners of pipelines that endoscopic cameras cannot negotiate.”

Other machines invented by Nakamura include a “snail robot” that climbs by adhering to rough surfaces, and a “water strider robot” that can examine water quality in lakes. He has even made an intestine-inspired robot that can be used to carry substances upward.

These nature-inspired devices have led to several joint projects with private companies and government-affiliated organizations.

One is being conducted with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to develop a robot that can probe below the moon’s surface. Another has him teaming up with the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (Jamstec) to extract rare earth metals from the Pacific seabed.

Nakamura said he aims to achieve the practical use of nature-inspired robots within the next three years.

“Living organisms evolved with functions that people do not have. The important thing is to observe them closely to see how they evolved to live in extreme environments,” he said.

The idea of nature-inspired manufacturing is not new.

As early as the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci was drafting design sketches of flying machines based on his observations of birds in flight.

The word biomimetics was coined in the 1950s by U.S. biophysicist Otto Schmitt, who developed an electronic circuit inspired by the nervous system of the squid, said Masao Hirasaka, managing director of the Society of Polymer Science Japan.

Hirasaka, who is in charge of promoting biomimetics, said that although the word may not be familiar to many, the concept is responsible for many products in common use — including Velcro, modeled after the seeds of the burdock plant, and bullet trains, the fronts of which were shaped after the beaks of the kingfisher.

What makes the recent wave of biomimetic inventions new is the rapid advancement of nanotechnology, which allows us to closely observe and precisely imitate the structure of living organisms, Hirasaka said.

Products of this sort can lead to environment-friendly advances, he said.

“Conventionally, we used to rely on fluoride to make water-resistant materials,” he explained. “But if we imitate the surface of the lotus leaf, we don’t need to use any toxic chemicals.”

A biomimetic fabric developed by textile maker Teijin Ltd. is another example.

Instead of using dyes to color the fabric, Teijin uses light reflection technology to generate colors the same way the intricately layered scales of an iridescent morpho butterfly make its wings appear blue.

“The innovations today have been largely driven by physics and chemistry. But the ideas derived from them have a limit,” Hirasaka said.

“The next paradigm shift could begin from biology, which would enable the industrial world to overcome technical and environmental difficulties that we are facing today,” he said.

This monthly feature, appearing on the second Monday or on the second Tuesday when Monday is a press holiday, looks at technologies still under development or new to the market.