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Chapter 10:
Biologically Inspired Robotic Applications
Biologically inspired intelligent robots have already proved useful in applications ranging from movie special effects to environmental exploration. The accelerating pace of change in the field implies that a dramatic convergence of machines and biological organisms is imminent. Although biomimetic robotics arguably have existed since the automata of ancient times [Cassell, 2002], the advent of modern biology, materials, and computation has greatly accelerated the mimicry of intelligent life (see Fig. 10.1). In fact, biologically inspired intelligent robotics appear to be reaching a significant level of capabilities and usefulness. An examination of current and developing applications can shed light on trends in this progression. For example, biomimetic toys are sparking the development of sociable and educational robotics; meanwhile, biomimetic military research is fueling the emergence of more agile mobile robots. This chapter surveys such trends in current and emerging applications of biologically inspired intelligent robotics, seeking to highlight the manner in which useful deployment will significantly shape the future of biomimetics. Biological evolution depends on diversification, gene transfer, and utility of specific traits. Similarly, the quest for more effective intelligent robots is being increasingly well served by diversified interdisciplinary collaborations, technology transfer, and usable, well-defined applications. The question “What is robotics?” has been hotly debated for many decades. One convention holds a robot to be a synthesis of mechanics, electronics, and software intelligence capable of mechanical interaction with its environment. Yet, this definition leaves out artificial life, most artificial intelligence (AI), and myriad other relevant technologies. The problem is that robotics is actually a vague synthesis of other technologies, with enormous overlaps with other disciplines. Thus, to obtain an effective snapshot of trends in the field of biologically inspired intelligent robotics and its applications, the topics of this chapter are viewed through a wide-angle lens. Today’s rapid progress toward more functional, lifelike robots has greatly captured the imagination of the public, which highlights the immediate market for biomimetics applications: entertainment robotics. However; many other biomimetic robotic features are beginning to find regular use in industry, military, scientific, and other applications. To understand the emergence of biomimetic robotics applications, though, one must consider the process by which such applications are being designed in collaboration with nature. More than mere imitation, biomimetics not only sets out to technologically absorb capabilities “invented” by evolution, but also to augment these with human innovation. This chapter considers some of the ways that biological systems are currently translated into technological applications, with an eye on several categories of biomimetic characteristics: expressive movement, locomotion, materials, molecular-scale structures and processes, and intelligence. The amount of increasing activity in biomimetic robotics and other relevant work is quite inspiring, and it is advancing very quickly to the point that reporting the status in this chapter would only be the finger pointing in the direction of the blowing wind. With no pretense of completeness then, we are pointing to the direction of technology through the review of several notable applications and the trends that they represent. Multiplicity, characteristic to many of life’s systems, is the focus of Sec. 10.4, Reconfigurable Robotics. The role of the toy industry, which is becoming a tremendous spawning ground for biomimetic robotics, is considered in Sec. 10.5. In Sec. 10.6, robotic practices of the entertainment industry, which is the leading application arena for facial-expression robotics and aesthetic biomimetics, are examined.
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