Feeds

Bon-viveur boffin: Biomimetic bird, bat & bug bots are b*llocks

Pooh-poohs flap-happy eggheads

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup

Everyone knows about the current rage for biomimetics - the building of machines or robots which copy design features from living creatures. But now a top UK biomech boffin has hurled cold water over the whole idea.

"My work should act as a reminder to be cautious in copying nature," says Dr Jim Usherwood of the Royal Veterinary College.

In particular, Usherwood is sceptical of the various research and development schemes which seek to mimic the flight of birds, bats, insects etc. He has spent years analysing the flapping wings of dragonflies, quail and most recently racing pigeons. (Usherwood's test pigeons apparently have to carry lead fishing weights to check their performance, and fly with reflective tape spots all over them so that their wing oscillations can be precisely monitored.)

In essence, Usherwood says that the dumb chums use flapping wings, not because it's a good or efficient flight mechanism, but because it's the only one you can make out of living bones, skin, feathers etc. Compared to ordinary aeroplanes, helicopters etc, birds, bats and insects are basically crap. Usherwood's research was presented at the Society for Experimental Biology's Annual Meeting in Marseilles over the weekend.

"Humans have always wanted to fly," says the the RVC release. "First attempts involved imitation of winged creatures around them, and unfailingly ended in disaster. No workable flying machines have ever looked particularly similar to nature's fliers."

"There is lots of interest in making MAVs/UAVs (micro/unmanned air vehicles) that flap," adds Usherwood. "There is a tendancy to presume that biology is efficient. I would say that, even at very small sizes, if you want to hover efficiently, be a helicopter not a flapper ..."

The doc says that flapping is a fairly rubbish way to do business, because you waste so much energy defeating the wing's inertia. On every beat, the wing must twice be sped up then decelerated to a stop. But an aeroplane wing, a propellor blade or a helicopter rotor all keep moving all the time. They only have to be accelerated once.

"Think of ... the exuberant rattling of a cocktail shaker - this takes a fair amount of power to overcome inertia," says Usherwood. "The effort of flapping ... explains why vultures don't look like gliders, and why most winged creatures, from insects to pigeons, fly so inefficiently."

Given the exuberant cocktail-shaking illustration and the pic Usherwood has chosen for his personal webpage, it seems safe to say that Usherwood enjoys a cheerier and more mainstream lifestyle than the stereotypical biomimetics boffin. He seems more intuitively trustworthy than the sinister misfits who have sought funding for such notions as the "gargoyle mode" robot spy bat-thopter, the extremely buggy bug-bug, the mechanoid mole cruiser, "Bigdog" walking petrol mule etc.

Interestingly, one might note that biomimetic projects are thus far confined mainly to the world of academe, where funding is often related to the attention an idea can grab rather than any prospects it may have of genuinely being useful. Why, it's almost as though there was some kind of media-related thing going on here, with idle hacks and researchers feeding the public a stream of animal-related, headline-friendly projects when they ought to be doing (and reporting on) proper engineering.

But that's a really far-fetched idea. ®

Build a business case: developing custom apps

More from The Register

next story
Boffins ID freakish spine-smothered prehistoric critter: The CLAW gave it away
Bizarre-looking creature actually related to velvet worms
ANU boffins demo 'tractor beam' in water
The current state of the art, apparently
China to test recoverable moon orbiter
I'll have some rocks and a moon cheese pizza please, home delivery
NASA's rock'n'roll shock: ROLLING STONE FOUND ON MARS
No sign of Ziggy Stardust and his band
What does a flashmob of 1,024 robots look like? Just like this
Sorry, Harvard, did you say kilobots or KILLER BOTS?
Why your mum was WRONG about whiffy tattooed people
They're a future source of RENEWABLE ENERGY
Vulture 2 spaceplane autopilot brain surgery a total success
LOHAN slips into some sexy bespoke mission parameters
Another step forward for diamond-based quantum computers
Square cut or pear-shaped, these qubits don't lose their shape
LOHAN acquires aircraft arboreal avoidance algorithm acronyms
Is that an ARMADILLO in your PANTS or are you just pleased to see me?
prev story

Whitepapers

Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Top 8 considerations to enable and simplify mobility
In this whitepaper learn how to successfully add mobile capabilities simply and cost effectively.
Solving today's distributed Big Data backup challenges
Enable IT efficiency and allow a firm to access and reuse corporate information for competitive advantage, ultimately changing business outcomes.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.