Today @ Colorado State has been replaced by SOURCE. This site exists as an archive of Today @ Colorado State stories between January 1, 2009 and September 8, 2014.

Research / Discovery

The Muse: Nature's Way

February 25, 2014
By Alan Rudolph, Vice President for Research

The cover feature of Science this week was 'Termite Inspired Robots.' I immediately had flashbacks to my days at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) -- it's a little like the blue pill Matrix stuff.

The article reports on how biologically inspired robots that behave like termites use local cues for large-scale construction projects well beyond their individual means. (Anyone who has ever seen a termite nest will immediately appreciate their construction prowess; unusual that we always associate termites with deconstruction).

Biologically inspired robotics has deep roots at DARPA.  I was the first and maybe the last zoologist DARPA ever hired. In 1996 I was recruited to use my training in evolutionary adaptation to invest in life sciences to harvest new technological applications (with an eye toward keeping the U.S. technologically superior, DARPA’s mission).  I spent more of your tax dollars than I will care to admit on biologically inspired robots, creating new platforms inspired by the adhesive capability and mechanics of geckos that can climb walls; cockroaches that can scramble over rubble; big dogs like my German short-haired pointer that can run through the forest; and the force dynamics behind insect flight.

In each of these very successful cases, there has been an explosion of new science, technology and commercialization in bio-inspired engineering robotics (e.g., Google Robotics, BigDog Robot, Rhex, DARPA’s Z-man program).

Era of Big Bets

I and others in the OVPR have been analyzing and thinking on a recent publication, “Competing in the Era of Big Bets: Achieving Scale in Multidisciplinary Research” by the Education Advisory Board. It dawned on me that analysis of Big Bet success based on my own experiences in the DARPA Controlled Biological System program was in order as we think about this issue for CSU. 

The story really spans more than a decade so it will be difficult to bore you with the whole story at once. Rather, I plan to treat you to a slower torture of piecemealing the story out over multiple Muses and taking aspects of the story one by one.

The Controlled Biological Systems program was a $60 million, five-year program.  Its goal was to extract biological discoveries into:

  1. engineering biological systems from molecules to organisms,
  2. creating hybrid biological abiotic systems using novel interfaces and
  3. engineering totally biomimetic platforms.  

We will focus first on the last pillar of the program and the big bets we took in bio-inspired robotics. 

Dynamic mobility

First it was critical to understand the problem we were trying to solve. At the time, we were entering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and given the lack of roads, ground movement with wheels or tracked vehicles was limited. The mission was also more embedded in urban environments where mobility can also be constrained. The need was for a new generation of systems that could operate locally with dynamic mobility. We turned to unlocking the force dynamic principles of legged and winged mobility. 

We established investments in enabling basic research and discovery to see if we could determine how to extract solutions for these challenges into technology development. These were pursued aggressively -- with off ramps to mitigate risk and the ability to cease a project in the event that the results were not realized in a reasonable timeframe. 

Seminal papers were published that for the first time described SLIP dynamics of legged locomotion, rotational forces responsible for insect flight, and unique forces associated with geckos sticking to walls. These fundamentals were then used by engineers to recreate similar capabilities in synthetic systems.

This is one lesson learned from my DARPA days in placing big bets.  Define the problem. Identify the fundamental and enabling roadblocks to solving them.  Bring different disciplines together to attack the problem from different perspectives and skills. Understand the timeline and translation of discoveries into innovative solutions. Set a plan to mitigate risk of placing your big bet and roll the dice. 

More to come.