Insect Bits & Bytes (June 2013)

This month’s topics:

Silkworm pavilion

Another compound eye

Some of the stories behind insect-inspired robots

Anti-counterfeit money thanks to butterflies

How to defeat hackers

Miscellaneous – things I learned about social media while writing the blog-post.

Silkworm pavilion

I ended last month’s “Bits and Bytes” with a mention of a project that was making the rounds under the heading #biomimicry. I am still not sure if this really falls under biomimicry or bioinspiration, but during the month of June it kept popping up on Twitter, probably because it is just very, very cool. The project received extra attention because the project was on display in Boston, the city where the Biomimicry3.8 Education Summit and Global Conference was held during the month of June – so cross-pollination for all!

The Mediated Matter group, under the guidance of Professor Neri Oxman, studies additive fabrication techniques (such as 3D printing) and tries to scale some of them up to, for instance, building-size structures. One of the projects involves mobile swarm building where small robots could potentially build large structures. For this project, which is ongoing, they are currently studying how silkworms (the caterpillars of the moth Bombyx mori) can inform this type of building technique.

SILK PAVILION from Mediated Matter Group on Vimeo.


Silk Pavilion information can be found on the Mediated Matter website here (tools: swarm printing), and here (environments: silk pavilion), and here (news: silk pavilion).


Another compound eye

Last month’s Bits and Bytes started off with the perfect insect-inspired story: an engineered compound eye from a University of Illinois lab. Great story to lead off the inaugural issue of a recurring blog feature – considering I cover insects, engineering and work at UIUC. Turns out that some of my ommatidia neglected to notice another story very similar to the one I covered. Last month the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at EPF-Lausanne also created a miniature curved artificial compound eye.

Size comparison between CURVACE (Curved Artificial Compound Eye) and a dragonfly. Image: courtesy Dario Floreano / Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

Size comparison between CURVACE (Curved Artificial Compound Eye) and a dragonfly. Image: courtesy Dario Floreano / Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

Maybe the manufacturing technique and the material used are not as cutting-edge as those used in the Rogers’ lab, but it seems to me that the final creation is a lot more like an insect compound eye.

The design consists of three planar layers of separately produced arrays, namely, a microlens array, a neuromorphic photodetector array, and a flexible printed circuit board that are stacked, cut, and curved to produce a mechanically flexible imager.

Illustration for the CURVACE assembly_method.

Illustration for the CURVACE assembly method.

Reference: Floreano, D., R. Pericet-Camara, S. Viollet, F. Ruffier, A. Brückner, R. Leitel, W. Buss, M. Menouni, F. Expert, R. Juston, M.K. Dobrzynski, G. L’Eplattenier, F. Recktenwald, H.A. Mallot & N. Franceschini. (2013) Miniature curved artificial compound eyes. PNAS V110 (230, pp 9267-9272. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1219068110


Some of the stories behind insect-inspired robots

Robotic insects were again quite popular this month, or at least on Twitter they were. As I covered in an earlier post (The Dawn of the Artificial Coprophages) engineers have been interested in building robots that move and behave similar to insects for quite a while. It first started with terrestrial locomotion, but now we also see insect-inspired robots that can swim, walk on water, dig, jump and (The Holy Grail) fly.

Here are a few insect-inspired robots that came across my computer screen this week:


Nature Magazine’s News and Views section (=behind a pay-wall) published a great 2-page article by David Lentink (Dept. of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University) covering the history of “robotic fly”.

Lentink reviews how the basic research on aerodynamics of insect flight inspired engineers to build robots using the data obtained by the biologists. And how this cross-pollination occurs at the same time as micro-manufacturing techniques are being developed. The article culminates with a recent publication from Rob Wood’s Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory.


This item does not need much introduction beyond this tweet:


Some other popular science articles that came out this month but covered research that was made public earlier this year:

I also found the article by Emily Monosson for Aeon Magazine an interesting read.

Monosson does not mention insect or insect-inspired robots specifically but she does wonder if life/AI can evolve from wires and plastic. Considering all the work that is being done on insect-inspired robots I assume that we will soon find out.

Anti-counterfeit money thanks to butterflies

Another story that received a lot of twitter-buzz this month was the one about Morpho butterflies serving as inspiration for anti-counterfeit money. The fact that Morphos (and many other butterflies and moths) use structural colors has been known for some time. Engineers and Material Scientists have also been interested, for quite a while now, in manufacturing materials that incorporate nanostructures similar to those on the butterfly wing. So that begs the question, why is this big news now? Probably because of a strategically placed corporate press release. It is interesting to see that news can spread quickly via social media (see silkworm pavilion story, for instance) but also that the story never really goes away.

Reference: ??


How to defeat hackers

Another example of how not-really-news becomes (again) a relatively big story is the article by Rafe Sagerin on how biomimicry can help us stay ahead of hackers. This article was basically a synopsis of his 2012 book called “Learning from the Octopus” which was fun book to read – but did not feature near enough insect examples. This article mentions only one insect (the stingless bee, go figure) but sentences like;

“The best bet is to do what the most successful organisms on Earth do — accept the risk and adapt to the changes”

immediately makes me think of insects since they are so very very successful and ubiquitous.

That this particular article became so popular this month showed me that getting your core-message (look to nature to fight terrorists, diseases, hackers) into a magazine where the topic is not typically discussed (Harvard Business Review) will help reach a lot of new sets of eyes and will familiarize more people with the terms biomimicry and bioinspiration.


Lessons I learned from Twitter and this blog-post during the month of June:

  1. There is a lot of cool stuff out there about insect-inspired technology. I need to become better about cataloging all the awesomeness as it becomes available during the month. (Any tips?)
  2. There is so much cool stuff out there that sometimes I miss something, especially if the topics are similar to each other. Last month I assumed the engineered compound eye stories were one story, but it turns out that they are actually two different approaches.
  3. Some stories seem like new but they may actually be receiving a “second wind”, because a journalist/science writer revisits the story or because of a simple retweet. Some stories therefore never really disappear.
  4. Placing a story in a non-traditional media outlet will result in a whole bunch of new eyes seeing the work, and that is a good thing.

And after all these years I am still unsure if certain areas of research really fall under bioinspiration or biomimicry (for example, the silkworm story or biofuels). And that is OK. Not everything will fit neatly in a box, even though the scientist-side of me wishes it would.


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