Using biology to make Star Wars come true: a joint project between Concord school and UC Berkeley

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--Students at Oak Grove Middle School in Concord were not standing in line last month to see the animated robots in Star Wars.

They were in the classroom designing them.

In the first such course in "biodesign," developed by University of California, Berkeley, professor Robert Full, students study how animals move - how they swim, crawl, run, jump, fly and jet - and use that information to design robots to search for life in the solar system.

The middle-school students will present their final robot designs - what Full calls Biomorphic Explorers - on Tuesday, June 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the Oak Grove Middle School, 2050 Minert Road, in Concord. Media are invited to attend.

"My parents are thrilled and my kids are so up about this course," said Dr. Audrey Wagman, principal of Oak Grove Middle School. "It's giving the students a real interest in science."

According to Full, students learn to look at animals in a different way - from an engineering perspective. They come to understand principles such as efficiency, stability, maneuverability, robustness and redundancy.

With inspiration from biology, students design and build physical models that capture many of the unique features of nature's technology. They are building their models with Zoobs, a modeling system marketed as a toy by Primordial. The company's president, Michael Grey, is a UC Berkeley alumnus.

Full initiated the biodesign course this spring with his undergraduate students at UC Berkeley using funds from an endowed chair in education created with the support of the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund.

This past semester, students were organized into design teams based on mode of locomotion and asked to search for original research on animal locomotion. They produced an oral report as if the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were there asking about design ideas from nature.

"The depth of understanding using the active design approach was greater than I have seen in 10 years," Full said. "We had students questioning the relevance of Nobel Prize winning discoveries."

Since Full's daughter, Mary, is in the sixth grade class at Oak Grove and could assist him, he decided to attempt a similar biodesign course with her class. Working with Patricia Bannister, a science instructor at the school, he created a course in which the students use as a textbook original research papers from biology and an interactive CD.

These students too presented detailed reports in a "symposium," as if they were reporting to NASA on requirements to build an explorer robot.

Students focused on the design advantages they learned from animals, not on the details of electronics or motors. Geckos, for example, rely on dry adhesion without glue or suction to climb up even the smoothest rocks, while a shrimp-like animal called a stomatopod rolls on the beaches of Panama. Insect larvae jet about by sending a stream of water out their anus, lizards use ribs with membranes to glide, grasshoppers use springs in their legs to jump and cheetahs use their backbones as springs to run fast.

The middle school students also traveled to UC Berkeley to see cutting-edge research in locomotion. Students heard about how dinosaurs ran and flew and how geckos run up walls. They saw Robo-fly, a device that simulates how the wings of flies work, and they even simulated a walk on Mars by using a harness associated with a treadmill.

They participated in a treasure hunt for original research articles in the BioSciences Library so they could see where and how original discoveries are reported. To assist in designing these robots, the middle school students "went" to Mars, Full said. They executed and coordinated a whole mission, starting with landing on an artificial Mars surface, then analyzing video data of the surface, making maps, driving a rover and looking for signs of life, which they found in their final "live" mission in front of parents and teachers.

Using nature's technology is becoming more possible than ever before, Full said, because of spectacular advances in materials, actuators, mechanisms and adaptive control or electronic learning. Yet, few engineers have been taught broadly enough to use these new, very biological design capabilities. Biologists are in a unique position to offer new design ideas for future robots.

Full does just that in his PolyPEDAL (Performance, Energetics and Dynamics of Animal Locomotion) research laboratory at UC Berkeley, where he discovers principles of legged locomotion by studying six-legged cockroaches, eight-legged crabs, 44-legged centipedes and geckos that peel their toes like tape. He shared his biological inspiration with Disney/Pixar on its recent, highly successful movie, "A Bug's Life."

He also has provided nature's design ideas to the company IS Robotics, resulting in the first underwater legged robot, named Ariel, that can maneuver in the surf, and the soon-to-come mechanical gecko.

"We have even reached the time when it is possible to begin to think about replacing motors with artificial muscles," he said.

Full consults with Intelligent Inference Systems Corp. in the design of a two-legged Mars walker using artificial muscles, with support from NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts. He is collaborating with the Stanford Research Institute to see how rubberband-like artificial muscles match up with real muscles and with engineers at Stanford University who can, for the first time, manufacture flexible segments that have embedded within them sensors and actuators like artificial muscles.

"These new capabilities will open up a whole new world of robotic designs," Full said. "And these students will be ready to deliver the next generation of biologically inspired ideas."

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