Scientists, architects and engineers have for eons, looked to nature for inspiration to create devices useful to humans. Think of Leonardo’s observations of the construction of a bird’s wings that he incorporated into his drawings for flying craft.
Velcro was invented by a Swiss engineer when he tried to remove cockle-burs after hiking. He was fascinated that the tiny hooks on the burs could adhere so tenaciously to both his dog’s fur and his pants.
Inspiration from Nature
For as long as divers have been diving they have seen remoras hitching rides on sharks and rays. The ability of these sucker fish to attach and detach themselves at will to a larger, moving host should have gotten someone’s attention. So, it is amazing that one of nature’s super adhesives has been overlooked until recently.
When Jason Nadler a professor of materials science at Georgia Tech started to analyze the remora’s unique abilities he discovered that only one paper had ever been written on the subject.
“Why hasn’t anybody looked at this?” he wondered.
In 2012 Nadler outlined his findings on the structure of the remora’s disc-shaped sucker system.
His intention was to engineer an adhesive that would be reversible, similar in the way that a remora can loosen its grip without causing damage to what it sticks to.
Fast forward to 2018 and the development of an artificial suction disc engineered by Li Wen. A postdoc student at Harvard University, Wen is now a professor of bio-robotics at Beihang University in Beijing.
A Robotic Remora
Wen and co-author Yufeng Chen at the Wyss Institute at Harvard created a prototype using a combination of 3D printing and laser-machined carbon-fiber.
The team then incorporated their prototype into an underwater robot that allows it to adhere to various textures of surfaces and resist being pulled off.
“Our next step is towards a reliable robotic device that can achieve reversible attachment and detachment underwater,” Wen said.
Although the technology is still under development speculation on how it could be used is growing. Applications could include underwater repair of ships, tunnels and bridges, when lights or equipment might need to be attached.
Its use with autonomous underwater vehicles to allow them to travel further, attached “remora style” to larger vehicles is another real possibility.
“This design has the potential to greatly extend the range and endurance of ocean exploration UAVs,” Chen said. Read more in Oceans Deeply.
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