Biomimetics is a general description for engineering a process or system that mimics biology. The term emerged from biochemistry and applies to an infinite range of chemical and mechanical phenomena, from cellular processes to whole-organism functions.

“People have been trying to copy nature for a very long time,” says Jerry Pratt, a research scientist at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. Leonardo da Vinci made drawings of potential flight contraptions based on detailed anatomical studies of birds, and the Wright brothers based their airplane structure on observations and analysis of bird flight. However, researchers diverge in precisely how they define biomimetics. “‘Biomimetic’ is often a vague term, much like ‘robot,'” says Pratt.

Mark Cutkosky, a professor in Stanford University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is part of a team working on a family of legged robots based on cockroach locomotion. He says their team defines biomimetics as “extracting principles from biology and applying them to man-made devices—particularly robots.”

Cutkosky says two forces are driving the “new wave” of robotics. First, biological research has exposed a huge amount of biological process data that roboticists can apply to their work. Second, advances in low-cost, power-efficient computing systems allow researchers to create robots that work outside laboratories. Cutkosky says that roboticists can “really put some of the lessons we’re learning from biology to practice. Ten years ago, even if I had understood exactly what materials and mechanical principles underlie the cockroach’s robust dynamic locomotion, I would have been unable to build a robot that embodied them.”

Not that current biomimetic robots are dependent on the fastest computing technologies available.

“The interesting thing about the biomimetic work,” says Butler Hine, manager of the computing information and communications technology program based at NASA-Ames, “is it uses nature’s evolved way of doing things rather than the computationally intensive way.” In lieu of algorithmic-intense artificial intelligence, Hine says, some researchers are using control loops and 8-bit processors and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) for command control rather than lines and lines of programming.

Biomimetic robots are still relatively new, however, and the possible collaborations among biologists, robotic engineers, and computer scientists have barely begun.

There’s more to this process than simply constructing a workable, autonomous robotic device, say scientists. “How birds fly, how fish swim, how dolphins locate objects, and how humans walk might best be discovered and understood by trying to reproduce these activities in a device,”contends IMHC’s Pratt. “The knowledge gained might not be immediately useful, but it could some day lead to useful technologies based on, but not necessarily mimicking, these phenomena.”

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