RoboCop? How About RoboPenguin!

Jan 1, 2014
Originally published on January 1, 2014 11:42 am

At the American Physical Society's fluid dynamics conference this winter, there was a healthy infusion of biology. In between talks on propellers and plane wings, there were presentations about flying snakes, fire ants, humpback whales and hummingbirds. Physicists from all over the world are turning to the natural world to help them solve engineering problems.

It's not a new phenomenon. Otto Lilienthal, the "Father of Flight," famously studied storks to help him develop his gliders. But it's still a bit surprising that another scientist has turned to flightless birds for inspiration — specifically, he's turned to African penguins.

Flavio Noca, now a professor of aerodynamics at Switzerland's University of Applied Sciences, first encountered the power of penguins back when he was a grad student. He came across a paper that described the incredible acceleration of emperor penguins: from zero to 15 mph in just a second.

"I was just amazed by their performance," Noca remembers. "That's when, basically, I decided, 'OK, I want to work on penguins.' "

It's not just their speed that impressed him. Penguins can move side to side and make sharp turns effortlessly — things that underwater craft built by humans struggle to do. But very few people have studied penguins, so little is known about how these champion swimmers manage their underwater acrobatics.

"There are just, for some reason, only two basic papers," Noca says.

So Noca set out to learn more. He started by filming zoo penguins to track the exact movement of their wings.

"It was very hard because penguins have their own mind[s] so they're not going to go where you want them to go," Noca says.

But after analyzing lots of underwater videos, Noca and his students were able to describe the exact stroke of a penguin's flipper. But they still needed a way to model that movement in the controlled lab environment.

This year, Noca's research assistant, Bassem Sudki, developed and manufactured a completely novel joint mechanism that can mimic the stroke of a flipper. With the mechanical flipper churning in the water, Noca can better measure the flows and forces involved, and learn exactly how penguins achieve their maneuverability. He says someday this mechanism could help underwater craft dart through oceans.

The flipper mechanism is just one example of the bio-inspired design on display at this year's fluid dynamics conference. Many of the attendees believe they are on the edge of a new wave of discovery. Scientists finally have the technology not only to understand mechanics in the natural world, but also to actually replicate natural structures within human-made machines.

Nature, they say, can help engineers when they are stuck on a particular problem.

"Nature has been going through millions of years of engineering," Noca explains. "And it has found one solution."

It might not be the best solution, but it could be one that humans are able to imitate and improve upon.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Happy New Year. I'm Renee Montagne.

At physics conferences these days, a lot of talk is about feathers and fins.

AMY LANG: So, I have studied sharks and also butterflies.

JUSTIN JAWORSKI: Brine shrimps.

HAMID MARVI: Sidewinder rattlesnakes.

SCOTT THOMSON: They're called fire ants.

JANA NAVROTTE: The Hawaiian bobtail squid.

MONTAGNE: More and more physicists are turning to the Animal Kingdom for potential solutions to engineering problems. One particularly odd project caught the attention of NPR's Adam Cole. He brings us the story of a propulsion system inspired by the penguin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ADAM COLE, BYLINE: Penguins have a comical reputation. They dance for Mary Poppins and play dumb commandos in DreamWorks' "Madagascar."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MADAGASCAR")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I want you to look cute and cuddly, Private.

COLE: And a visit to real, live African penguins at the Maryland Zoo doesn't do much to shake the stereotype. The penguins waddle around in pairs on their rocky island and bray like donkeys.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAYING)

COLE: One curious penguin stops to peck at the shoelaces of a zookeeper.

JEN KOTTYAN: Her name is Peanut.

COLE: That's avian manager Jen Kottyan. She knows all the penguins by name. There's Peanut, Winnie, Tux and dozens more.

KOTTYAN: They are very, very awkward, and kind of clumsy out on land.

COLE: But when Peanut dives into the water...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASH)

COLE: ...she becomes sleek and graceful. And those little wings that seemed so silly on land suddenly become extremely useful.

KOTTYAN: Their wings are small, in proportion to their body. But they are very, very powerful.

COLE: They help Peanut reach 12 miles per hour in the water. She can make sharp turns, move side to side, and accelerate suddenly. It's this maneuverability - hard to achieve in human craft - that so impressed physicist Flavio Noca.

FLAVIO NOCA: I was just amazed by their performance. And that's when, basically, I decided, OK, I want to work on penguins.

COLE: Noca is works at Switzerland's University of Applied Sciences. He says that very little is known about how these champion swimmers manage their underwater acrobatics.

NOCA: There are just, for some reason, only two basic papers.

COLE: So, Noca set out to learn more. He started by filming zoo penguins to track the exact movement of their wings.

NOCA: It was very hard, because penguins have their own mind, so they're not going to go where you want them to go.

COLE: But after watching lots of underwater videos, Noca was able to figure out the exact angle and position of the penguin wing as it completes a stroke. But he still needed a way to model and control that movement in the lab, to understand how it generates its power. So, this year, one of his research assistants built an entirely novel joint mechanism that can perfectly mimic a penguin's flipper stroke.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING)

COLE: With the mechanical flipper churning in the water, Noca can better measure the flows and forces involved. He says someday, this mechanism could help underwater craft dart through ocean.

When Noca presented his work at the American Physical Society's conference in Pittsburgh this winter, he wasn't the only one there talking about animals. Physicists and engineers from all over the world are using new tools - like computer modeling and 3D printing - to study and replicate natural systems. And when I asked them why they're so focused on nature, well, I'll let them explain.

LANG: Nature's been swimming or flying for millions of years.

JAWORSKI: Millions of years of engineering.

NAVROTTE: Millions of years of selection.

LANG: Nature may have solved problems that we're also trying to solve.

THOMSON: So we look to them for inspiration where we're a bit stuck.

MARVI: And it turns out, if you go to the nature and look for the right organism, you are going to find a pretty good solution for that engineering problem.

THOMSON: But it's not necessarily optimal.

NAVROTTE: It doesn't mean it's the only solution. It doesn't mean it's the best solution, but it gives you a direction.

COLE: That was Amy Lang, Jana Navrotte(ph), Justin Jaworski, Hamid Marvi and Scott Thomson.

And I'm Adam Cole, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.