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Thanks to ongoing advances in nanomaterials and MEMS sensors, the field of robotics continues to evolve and just keeps getting cooler. Forget the six million dollar man - how about a bionic penguin instead?

April 29th, 2009

Let's Take a Walk on the Wild Side

How many of you are familiar with the 1970's TV show the six million dollar man? It was about a man whose right arm, both legs and left eye are replaced by "bionic implants" (basically robotics) that enhance his strength, speed and vision far above that of normal humans. The show was extremely popular, resulting in a spin-off, a second show called the Bionic Woman. In this case, a woman's legs, right arm and right ear are replaced - giving her super-human strength, speed and hearing.

While today's most advanced artificial limbs still aren't able to give you super-human strength (unless you use an exoskeleton), they're far more functional (and realistic) than artificial legs of even just a decade ago, thanks to the use of MEMS strain gauges and gyro sensors. Cochlear implants (tiny micromachined coils) now allow the deaf to hear, and artificial retinas (based on an array of micromachined needles) are indeed a reality, although right now they've only been proven to restore extremely limited vision capabilities - there's no super vision just yet.

That being said, the whole concept of the six-million dollar man and bionic woman is indeed now more fact than fiction. So, making a TV show based on this premise today probably wouldn't be as exciting as it was three decades ago. Still, there's a way we could take this concept a step further - in a very cool, and unexpected direction. Animals. I've run across reports about birds being fitted with artificial beaks so they can eat, or dolphins given artificial fins so they can swim, but…

How about a bionic penguin? Or even a bionic jellyfish? These aren't real live animals with artificial limbs, but rather, robotic animals that realistically mimic the look and movement of their live counterparts. Such animals were unveiled by engineering firm Festo at Hannover Fair last week in Germany.

A video the company released shows what looks like penguins swimming in a pool; what makes them so amazing is that they're entirely robotic. Flexible glass fiber rods allow the neck to twist in virtually any direction, allowing the bionic penguin to twist and turn in a very realistic manner as it glides through the water - assisted by flippers to help it paddle. Just like a real penguin.

It gets even better. The penguins have also been embedded with 3D sonar so they can monitor their surroundings and avoid collisions with walls and other obstacles; like, other penguins. In a slightly more surreal application, these bionic penguins can be filled with helium, allowing them to float, so they can "swim" through the air.

Last year the firm unveiled the creation of bionic jellyfish. The looked and moved just like real jellyfish, but are completely robotic. The video is simply amazing. If you've ever seen jellyfish in an aquarium - they're mesmerizing. And the robotic version are equally so. In fact, I'd say even more so, as you sit and consider how the use of advanced plastics, fiber optics, sensors and motors can make them seem so life-like.

As I've reported in previous podcasts, the use of nanomaterials and MEMS sensors are taking robotics to a whole new level - far beyond that ever envisioned by those who dreamed up the six-million dollar man. I'm sure they never, ever considered a six million dollar jellyfish or bionic penguin as possibilities.

This article is a transcript of the Bourne Report Podcast #127.

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© 2009 Bourne Research LLC. All rights reserved.

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