Thursday, December 9, 2010

Ball 16. Graceful Guillemot Doubles as Robotics Muse

Engineers hoping to build a robot that can both swim and fly have
so far been frustrated by the design challenges of creating a
machine that moves well in water and air.

But one group of researchers has turned to nature for inspiration, in the form of the common guillemot, which has the uncommon ability to swim and fly with equal grace.

Richard Lock, a robotics expert at the University of Bristol, U.K., and his colleagues have been modeling the wing movements of the guillemot with the ultimate goal of building a mechanical version of the bird. Such a device, they say, could be helpful for a variety of marine pursuits, from off-shore oil rigs to counter-terror surveillance operations.

In a recent paper in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, Prof. Lock's group presents elaborate mathematical models for how the birds fly and swim, paying particular attention to the way they hold their wings during each activity. Guillemots, and some of their seabird relatives, are able to flex their wings in the water in such a way as to derive substantial power for swimming strokes. Water, after all, is 800 times denser than air.

The modeling is a key step toward helping the robotics researchers
build a machine that can mimic the guillemots' movements. But they're still a ways off.

Professor Lock:
"There are many obstacles in the way before getting a functional
prototype but we believe we're at least heading along the right track. And the guillemots make it look so easy!"