Robotic Materials

Robotic Materials Photo Credit: By FDA (https://flic.kr/p/9gFr4x) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Many futuristic inventions are inspired by biological systems.


High-tech inspiration. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

In his mile-high lab at the University of Colorado in Boulder, roboticist Nikolaus Correll and his interdisciplinary team of computer scientists and engineers design and test the next generation of robotic materials. But he says at their core, their high-tech creations are inspired by nature.

I think natural systems are essentially robotic materials. All of them are cells that can either sense or compute in a very simple way.

He says to build a camouflaged car, you might want to understand how a chameleon changes color. To create airplane wings that change their shape midflight, you should watch how bird wings respond to changing aerodynamic conditions. To build bridges that repair themselves, you should observe how the banyan tree grows buttresses as it senses its load shifting. His team writes about the future of robotic materials in the journal Science. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

Scientists often look to nature for inspiration and to find answers to the many questions they have about the natural world. Many times, scientists study organisms to help them develop new technology. This is particularly the case with roboticist Nikolaus Correll and his team of computer scientists and engineers. They look to organisms like cuttlefish (camouflage), eagles' wings (shape change), the banyan tree (adaptive load bearing), and human skin (tactile sensing) to figure out how they function and determine if some of their properties can be incorporated in robotic materials. These are a class of multifunctional materials that tightly integrate sensing, actuation (changing material properties of the base material), communication, and computation.

Correll and his colleagues believe that these robotic, or composite, materials could enable a new generation of truly smart material systems that can change their appearance and shape independently. That is, they would sense, calculate, and react to their surroundings without any outside computer power. Some of the applications that these scientists envision include airplane wings and vehicles with the ability to adapt their aerodynamic profile or camouflage in the environment, bridges and other civil structures that could detect and repair damages, or robotic skin and prosthetics with the ability to sense touch and subtle textures. 

How is this kind of technology becoming more feasible? It appears that recent advances in manufacturing, combined with the miniaturization of electronics, is enabling a new class of robotic materials. For example, state-of-the-art robotic materials are increasingly integrating sensors and actuators at high densities. Combining these composites with cheap and small microprocessors will allow these materials to function independently.  

All of this sounds great, but what are some of the challenges that scientists might encounter in trying to develop this kind of technology? "Right now, we're able to make these things in the lab on a much larger scale, but we can't scale them down," Correll said. "The same is true for nano- and microscale manufacturing, which can't be scaled up to things like a building façade." Another challenge is that the field is faced with an education gap in that robotic materials requires interdisciplinary knowledge that currently isn't provided by materials science, computer science, or robotics curricula alone. Some educators, though, are trying to bridge that gap by exposing engineering students to both materials and computing to get them to think about whole systems early in their careers. They hope that by doing this, they will help prepare the next generation of scientists to be able to solve the problems encountered by scientists today.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. Why is it useful for engineers to study organisms? What can they learn from organisms and how does this help them develop new technology?
  2. What are robotic materials?
  3. What types of applications do scientists envision robotic materials can be used for?
  4. What advances have made this technology more feasible?
  5. What are some of the challenges that scientists might encounter when trying to develop this kind of technology?

You can learn more about how scientists study the natural world for inspiration with this Science Update Podcast from January 7, 2011, on the Nature of Invention. Topics covered in this podcast include how: sea urchin teeth could inspire new nano-materials, hornet stripes could lead to better solar technology, and automatic transmissions could revolutionize electric wheelchairs, in addition to new research on the genetics of hair color and male pattern baldness.

The Science Update Super Water Repellent looks at how engineers studied the hairs on spider legs to develop the ultimate water-repellent surface.

Going Further

For Educators

You could extend the ideas in this Science Update by having students listen to Insect Gears, which discusses how some insects’ legs have gears that look and function like the classic man-made invention.

This Science Update would make an excellent addition to a high-school engineering class. You could use it to show students how scientists look to and study the natural world to help them solve technological challenges and devise new products. This Science Update also could be used to enhance any lessons or units you do on the nature of science.

Related Resources

The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science
6-8 | Audio
Inventors and Innovators
6-8 |
Organisms in Motion: Practical Applications of Biological Research
9-12 | Video
Technological Advances in Health
9-12 |
Punching Shrimp
6-12 | Audio

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