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    Biomimetics: Studying Bird Flight for Flying Robots

    There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. This past month, we’ve been profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

    When you’re trying to perfect robotic flight the obvious biological animal to mimic is, of course, the bird. But what’s less obvious is just how exactly you go about quantifying the physical capabilities of motion and engineering while in flight. At David Lentink’s lab at Stanford he is combining specially trained animals with high-tech motion capture to puzzle out just what it is about bird wings that make them such fantastic flyers.

    Photo credit: Stanford

    Lentink has trained hummingbirds and parrotlets to perform special maneuvers -- flying from point A to point B -- so that he can capture images of them in motion. With high-speed cameras he can capture 50 images for each wing beat. In addition, using two high-speed lasers that flash from 1,000 to 10,000 times per second, Lentink is able to create an image of how the air flows behind the birds as they fly.

    “Our goal is to understand the flow and the forces they generate when they fly and we developed special instruments to do that. You can’t work with a bird like an airplane. We train our birds based on food rewards. So now we point to perch where they need to fly to and they will fly there,” says Lentink. “We’re trying to discover how birds manipulate air to fly more effectively and move better.”

    In addition to studying wing movement and the manipulation of air, Lentink and his team have started to research the bird’s vision and how it combines with their wing movements to determine direction. “What do they see and how do they use what they are seeing to control their flight? The main thing we’re looking at is optical flow, something that robots also use. How images move over the retina, the intensity of images over the retina, and how birds use that to decide to go left, right, or stabilize,” he says.

    It may sound like very fundamental research, he says, but it’s essential if there’s any hope of building a future robot that can fly like a bird. Especially when you consider the limitation of current flying robots. Quadcopters, according to Lentink, aren’t good at maneuvering through turbulence, around buildings, or through trees and narrow spaces. Yet at the moment they’re our most popular flying bot. Birds, on the other hand, don’t have any trouble performing any of those difficult tasks.

    Biomimetics: Learning about Camouflage from Cuttlefish

    There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. Over the next few weeks, we’re profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

    Few animals in the world are better at camouflaging themselves then the cephalopod. A family of ocean-going invertebrates that include the octopus, the squid, and the cuttlefish, these squishy little guys are better than anybody at disappearing into their surroundings. And that makes them the ideal candidates for biomimicry.

    In Woods Hole, Massachusetts, biologist Roger Hanlon is focused on puzzling out the cellular systems that make quick color changes possible. This is done both inside the lab and outside in the field. By watching octopi morph their appearance in their native environment and observing cuttlefish perform quick adaptation in controlled experiments, Hanlon has been able to learn not only about the makeup of their skin that allows them to change, but also how they use their sensory organs to determine which pattern they’ll mimic next.

    “The field work allows us to frame the big questions. By immersing myself in their sensory world, not mine, seeing them behave normally lets me see the wider scope in an evolutionary context,” says Hanlon.

    But it’s not just the animal itself that is giving insight into the physics of camouflage, he says. “It’s extremely important to measure the light field -- how much is there and how does it change. Because what a predator does or doesn’t see depends on what kind of light is available and it’s own visual system. That brings us to visual perception. What I’m really studying is the visual perception of the many predators that eat the cuttlefish and the visual perception of the cuttlefish themselves. A cuttlefish can change its appearance because it has to look around its environment to create the pattern that works.”

    Because cuttlefish are genetically predisposed to remain camouflaged at all times until they hit sexual maturity, they make the perfect lab “rats.” Hanlon and his team “capitalize on that strange situation” by giving them a series of different backgrounds to mimic -- from images of sand and pebbles to checkerboards -- and capture images of their color change.

    Biomimetics: Lessons from MIT's Sprinting Cheetah Robot

    There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. Over the next few weeks, we’re profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

    The best movers in the world are animals, so why do all of our transportation modes rely on wheels and not legs? That’s the question that inspires the work at MIT’s Biomimetics lab. According to Sangbae Kim, an associate professor at the lab, their main goal is to develop walking robots that move as well as any animal -- and shape how all robots move in the future.

    They decided the best inspiration for locomotion would be to find the fastest moving animal on Earth and mimic its makeup in robot legs. Enter the cheetah. Capable of speeds up to about 64 miles per hour, the big cat outpaces all other running animals in the world (except, perhaps, the Paratarsotomus macropalpis -- a beetle the size of a sesame seed that can run 322 body-lengths per second compared to the Cheetah’s 16.)

    “Each animal has their advantage, but the cheetah uses speed as a survival skill. It doesn’t have many other skills -- it’s jaws aren’t very strong -- the only thing it’s good at is speed. And that’s why we can identify it’s mechanical features. We’re looking at it’s leg shape, mass distribution, the joints they’re using, and their gait,” says Kim.

    The cats are also incredibly good at changing direction at high speed. Their unique muscular makeup allows them to use their tail to pivot at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, says Kim, cheetahs are endangered so they can’t study one in the lab. The team has learned about the cats’ unique abilities by watching nature videos and reading studies by the few scientists that have had the chance to study them.

    “We read papers about them. Researchers at Royal College in England they recorded forces and slow motion in a captive cheetah. We take inspiration from videos and learn mechanical aspects like how they achieve a stable running,” he says.

    What they’ve learned is that the animal’s leg shape is essential: it has a slender leg and all of its muscles are concentrated up next to its body. That way they minimize their energy use and maximize the swing of their legs.

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Chris Buddle, Arachnologist

    Chris Buddle spends a lot of his time crawling around on his hands and knees in the high arctic. He’s one of the world’s very few experts on the eight-legged creepy crawlies that send a shiver up the spine of most folks. Buddle is an arachnologist and an associate professor of forest insect ecology at McGill University. And he loves spiders. He chatted with us about how the heck he goes about finding teeny tiny animals scuttling around the northern Tundra and why spiders aren’t scary, they’re absolutely fascinating.

    Why study spiders?

    They’re predators almost entirely within their own food web. They have a significant impact on whatever system they’re in. Whether they run down beaches as tides go out and catch invertebrates or live in the high tundra. No matter where they are, they are always eating other things and sometimes each other. They’re always eating. They have an impact on other animals around them.

    They also have very interesting applications as pest control agents. Think of how many pests they eat -- mosquitoes around our houses or crop pests -- they have an impact on pest species.

    They have all kinds of uses in the biomedical field. The silk they produce has interesting properties, people use it in the wound care industry as bandages and they use biophysical properties as a model for the development of new fabrics or ropes.

    The other thing is that they feed all kinds of other animals. In the high arctic a lot of birds, and when they first arrive to breed, after the snow and ice starts to melt the first thing they encounter as food is spiders.

    Do we have any idea how many spiders there are in the world?

    We don’t know the number in the world but I’ve done the calculation in individual habitats. It’s true that you’re almost always close to a spider. Density estimates in the arctic show there’s half a spider per meter squared. That’s 4,000 wolf spiders per hectare [about 2.5 acres]. It’s a lot. And that’s just one system. There’s a lot of spiders out there wandering around. So everyone should be an arachnologist!

    Female Anna's Hummingbird at 240fps

    This video isn't perfect, but I thought it was too awesome not to share. When I was walking to lunch the other day in San Francisco, I encountered an absolutely fearless hummingbird. At one point, she hovered about 3 inches from my face. When I realized she was going to hang around for a moment, I grabbed my phone. I'm pretty certain she's a female Anna's but she could also be a female Costa's. I shot this with my iPhone 6 Plus, which definitely feels like a Louis CK chair-in-the-sky moment for me.

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Kevin Arrigo, Biological Oceanographer

    Kevin Arrigo studies some of the teeny tiniest organisms on the planet -- microscopic plants called Phytoplankton that scientists think might produce up to 50 percent of the Earth’s oxygen. To get at what makes these itty bitties tick he climbs aboard giant ice-breaking ships and heads out to the planet’s icy North and South where they are the most active. Arrigo chatted with us about what it’s like to work in the world’s polar regions and what it feels like to take a wrong step and get a boot full of freezing arctic water.

    Do you consider yourself a biologist?

    I’m a biological oceanographer. I study the biology of the ocean at a pretty large scale. I’m not a marine biologist. I look at really big ocean issues. One example is the organisms that are the base of the food chain, microscopic phytoplankton. They’re tiny plants that feed everything in the ocean and produce more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe. Most people think of trees, but it’s mostly the phytoplankton that are doing the work.

    They’re responsible for the coming and going of the ice ages, which is driven by changes in atmospheric CO2. When the winds pick up, the ocean gets fertilized by iron-rich dust blowing into it. This stimulates phytoplankton to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and then the planet starts to cool. After thousands of years, the temperatures drop so far that the planet goes into an ice age.

    The place I study phytoplankton is in the polar regions. They’re places we don’t understand very well. The North Pole and the area around Antarctica are very different. Most of the climate change is driven by phytoplankton in and around Antarctica. The ones growing in the tropics have very little impact on Earth’s climate.

    Around Antarctica, the ocean is a big watery place full of microscopic plants and they need nutrients just like your garden – mostly nitrogen or phosphorus. Luckily the Antarctic has lots of nitrogen and phosphorus, but not much iron. The ocean can become anemic too. Warm times like now, the ocean is really anemic - not much iron is being blown into it.

    In Brief: Why Scratching an Itch Makes It Worse

    Through a series of experiments with mice, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine think they have figured out why people scratch an itch to the point of bleeding. According to Dr. Zhou-Feng Chen, who is actually the director of the school's Center for the Study of Itch (seriously!), the cause of neural crosstalk and the brain's release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. We scratch itches because the pain induced by scratching inhibits the itch, but the serotonin released to control the pain makes more scratching required to keep soothing the itch. It's a feedback loop that our brains are helpless to resist.

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    In Brief: Research Shows Plants Can Detect When They're Being Eaten

    Don't worry, this isn't about plants having consciousness or anything like that. Modern Farmer reports on a new study conducted at the University of Miami, in which researchers found that a thale cress plant was able to physiologically react to its leaves being eaten. In the study, the researchers mimicked the vibrations made by a caterpillar when it chews on the plant, which caused the thale cress to excrete extra predator-deterring oils. The revelation isn't that the plant is self-aware, but that scientists can look into ways to spur plants to activate their natural defenses on command--which may be useful for farmers to better prepare crops against the elements.

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    Snake Robot Helps Roboticists and Herpetologists

    Howie Choset's team built Elizabeth, a snake-like robot designed to explore parts of caves that were unsafe, or too small, for humans. Elizabeth performed really well in most situations, but it had problems climbing sandy slopes. As is often the case, the roboticists looked to the natural kingdom for engineering help. By mimicking the movement of sidewinder rattlesnakes, Elizabeth can now climb steep, sandy slopes. Ed Yong has a full writeup about the project.

    Octobot Doubles Its Speed with Webbed Arms

    From the Foundation for Research & Technology's Institute of Computer Science: "Adding a soft silicone web to a small robotic octopus helps the machine hit the gas. The first robot shown propels itself by snapping shut rigid plastic legs. The second bot uses flexible silicone legs and moves at about the same speed. The third robot zips along faster, using silicone arms and a web that helps it push through water." Material science and animal biology come together in this robot's clever mimicking of an Octopus. Read more at Science News.

    In Brief: Stunning Macro Photos of Animal's Eyes

    Photographer Suren Manvelyan has shot unbelievable macro shots of different animal's eyes and posted them on his Behance portfolio. The shots are absolutely stunning, but as you browse through the three galleries of images, you'll start to see the different evolutionary paths that have shaped the eyes of a variety of creatures. I'm partial to this shot of a basiliscus lizard's eye, which could double as a planet in an upcoming sci-fi movie. (via Laughing Squid)

    Will
    The Secret to Smarter Robots: Ants

    Your cat is stuck in a burning building too dangerous for rescue crews to go inside, so off go the drones instead – five little unmanned aerial models that hover and flit through fiery beams and door frames without any human control. They know to spread out to cover more ground, and know how to adjust their search patterns when the communication links with the other drones go down. Their algorithms find and retrieve your cat in what rescue crews tell you is record time.

    Or that's the dream anyhow, to one day build artificially intelligent, self-organizing robot systems that can collaborate on complex tasks – or, at the very least, rescue imperiled cats. We're not there yet, but researchers have been getting closer, thanks in part to what we're learning from the collective behavior of ants.

    Photo credit: National Geographic

    Look back through artificial intelligence literature from the past few decades and you'll find ant-inspired algorithms are a popular topic of study. Of note, Swiss artificial intelligence researcher Marco Dorigo was the first to algorithmically model ant colony behavior in the early 1990, and Stanford University biologist Deborah Gordon published her own study on the expandable search networks of ants a few years after. Today, both have different but related ideas on how we might implement so-called ant-inspired swarm intelligence in robots – and perhaps soon, drones – outside of the lab.

    Consider, for example, how ants explore and search. Ants change the way they scour for things such as food and water depending on the number of ants nearby. According to Gordon, if there is a high density of ants in an area, the ants search more thoroughly in small, random circles. If there are fewer ants, the ants adjust their paths to be straighter and longer, allowing them to cover more ground.

    Photo credit: NASA

    This is all well and good in typical ant environments – but how do the ants adapt when interference is introduced, and their communication with other ants interrupted? To find out, Gordon sent over 600 small, black pavement crawlers to the International Space Station in January, and believes that studying how they react to the unfamiliar microgravity of space could help build better robots. Her research is especially prescient in the age of the drone.

    In a Stanford news release, Gordon likened the interference introduced by microgravity as "analogous to the radio disruption that robots might experience in a blazing building." Depending on how Gordon's space ants adapt, she thinks the results when applied to robotics and artificial intelligence could help us program more efficient algorithms for search and exploration – especially when our robots are faced with unfamiliar environments, and with little to no human control.

    In Brief: Why Your Best Thinking Happens in the Shower

    Wired Science has an interesting blog post about why our best thinking seems to happen when we're in the shower. According to psychologists, it's because the shower is a perfect situation for our brains to enter the "default mode network," a mental state in which the environment seems to fade and you become more aware of your internal thoughts. Kind of like an out-of-body experience. Activities like showering (or building LEGO!) engage a part of your brain to keep you just mentally active enough to be stimulated, but still allow for you to have an uninterrupted stream of thought for those eureka moments. It's also known in psychology as a state of "Flow." Earlier this week, we tested Birdly, a virtual reality apparatus that attempts to put your brain in that state of flow--by giving you the sensation of flying like a bird. We'll have video and a writeup recapping it soon!

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    In Brief: The Origins of the "10% Brain Power" Misconception

    Adam linked us to this good story on Gizmodo examining the origins of the common misconception that we only use 10% of our brains. Neuroscience and psychologists researchers in the early 20th century attempted to quantify how much of our brains (by mass) that we use for everyday activities, to find a correlation between brain mass and cognitive capacity. That line of thinking endures, as a means to explain latent cognitive potential. Of course, we actually use virtually all of our brain, and recent studies have shown that most of our brains are active over the course of a day, even if not all at once. Further reading on the topic here.

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    The Science and Mysteries of Booze

    We sit down with Adam Rogers, author of the book Proof: The Science of Booze, to discuss the what modern science and ancient history have to teach us about alcohol and humanity's complicated relationship with it. Grab a refreshing beverage and join us for a spirited conversation about society's favorite poison.

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Martin Nweeia, Narwhal Expert (and Dentist!)

    Martin Nweeia knows more about narwhals than almost anyone in the world. More specifically, he’s probably the world’s foremost expert on narwhal tusks. But Nweeia is only sort-of a marine mammal biologist. He’s actually a practicing dentist and a clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. This guy knows from teeth. So, while it might seem weird that he studies narwhals, if you think about it, there’s some sense to his in-depth knowledge of these whales’ toothy protuberances. We chatted with Nweeia about why the narwhal tusk is one of the weirdest teeth in the world and what it’s like to wade into the arctic waters of Canada’s Northwest Territories with Inuit guides to get a closer look at the real-life unicorn of the sea.

    What exactly is a narwhal?

    It’s an arctic whale with an extraordinary tooth.

    So, maybe it’s not so strange that you’re a dentist studying a whale...

    For everybody else it’s unusual. For me it’s OK. At the heart of things I’m a curious kid. As I went through my dental education I was equally fascinated by people. I had a very strong interest in anthropology that went parallel with my interest in science. These two fields would intersect. For a long time I was interested in dental anthropology, but I happened on the narwhal because I used to give talks and give examples of how teeth would express themselves in nature.

    The narwhal seemed like a good example of an unusual tooth. But it didn’t make sense to me. And the more I read about it the less sense it made.

    Why doesn’t it make sense?

    This is a whale that eats pretty big fish and when you look inside its mouth it has no teeth. If i’m eating large fish, that might require chewing and biting, why give up all those teeth and put all of the energy into growing one giant tusk?

    But there are also lots of the little things that don’t make sense. When you think of teeth, on both sides of a mammal's bite you’d expect them to be the same size and have a mirror image morphology or shape. In narwhals it couldn’t be more opposite. It doesn’t even fall within any parameter of any creature ever known on the planet.

    If you look at the narwhal’s, its tusk comes out of the left side. When you see photos of them, they angle their body so the tusk appears straight in alignment with the horizontal axis. But if you look at them still, clearly the tusk is coming from the left side. The tooth on the right side often stays embedded in the skull.

    You’ve got a tooth on one side that’s between a foot and a foot and a half and on the other side it’s 9 feet. Even in the rare instance when the narwhal has two tusks, the right is usually less in length from the left. The erupted tusk is on the left side or on both sides, or none. Never on the right by itself.

    10 Strange Features Of Sea Creatures

    For all of our scientific advances, the ocean is still a place of incredible mystery. The overwhelming biodiversity of underwater life has spawned a panoply of organisms that can do things no other living thing can. Today, we’ll spotlight ten ocean animals that have completely unique features.