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Biomimicry exhibit celebrates nature-inspired design.
June 9, 2017

ASU artists, scientists collaborate in nature-inspired designs at Tempe Center for Arts

Biomimicry is an approach to problem-solving that looks at how nature has already done it. In this philosophy, people create a sustainable lifestyle by observing how animals and plants have overcome obstacles in adapting to the environment.

A new exhibit at the Tempe Center for the Arts, “Biomimicry: Nature Inspired Design,” explores the connections between this philosophy and art. And because Arizona State University is a leader in the field of biomimicry, several faculty members and alumni are involved in the show, which also includes events to inspire community members.

The exhibit, which runs through Aug. 26 in the gallery, includes beautiful pieces that evoke the lovely but practical aspects of the natural world — butterfly wings, a snake’s spine, seeds that float through the air on fibers.

Biomimicry is a shift from “people-centered” design to “life-centered” design, according to Prasad BoradkarBoradkar, a professor of industrial design in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, also is director of InnovationSpace at ASU., co-director of the Biomimicry Center at ASU.

“Nature has been evolving for billions of years, and organisms have learned to adapt to their environment and cohabit with other organisms in their ecosystems,” said Boradkar, who is currently working on a project with Google in Mountainview, California.

“What humans have done from a design perspective and manufacturing and business perspective is we have created a world in which we don’t think of longevity or environmental or social impact.”

Waste, for example.

“Waste is not a problem in nature. Leaves from a tree degrade quickly and become useful for other organisms,” he said. “How do we handle waste? We create landfills. We dump it in a location we can’t see it.”

Students in the Biomimicry Center work across disciplines to find solutions, Boradkar said.

“The impact of design and manufacturing of new products doesn’t affect only humans. It affects all species on the planet. So why don’t we learn from all species on the planet?” he said.

Many everyday products and technologies have been inspired by biomimicry, such as hook-and-loop closures, also known as VelcroThe Velcro Co. is one of the sponsors of the exhibit, along with the following ASU units: the Biomimicry Center, the LeRoy Eyring Center for Solid State Science, the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and the Natural History Collection in the School of Life Sciences.. That was created in the 1960s when a scientist’s dog kept getting covered in burrs. Frustrated, the scientist looked at the seeds’ “grippers” under a microscope and was inspired to invent the fastening product.

The shape of moth wings have led to solar-power designs, and the echolocation abilities of sea mammals created the basis of radar. More recently, the slick swimsuits worn by the U.S. swim team in the 2008 Olympics were based on the composition of shark skin. They were later banned for giving an unfair advantage.

And an ASU-designed robot used a sea turtle's flippers as inspiration for a way to navigate different types of terrain.

The principles of nature have shaped not only what the Tempe exhibit’s artworks look like, but how they were created as well, according to Michelle Dock, gallery director.

“What we found with a lot of artists is that they’re inherently doing those sorts of things with this discipline that’s kind of new and also kind of old,” she said.

For example, artist Emily Longbrake incorporated the structure of a snake’s spine into her wood-and-string sculpture on display in the exhibit. When faced with the challenge of how to efficiently ship her artworks, she studied the ball-and-socket anatomy of a slithering snake, then incorporated ceramic balls into her design, which allows it to be flattened.

Damon McIntyre, a wood sculptor and instructor in the School of Art at ASU, has several pieces in the exhibit that he created out of some old pecan trees that were cut down on campus. The concept of biomimicry comes in with a table that has an asymmetric base.

“He’s emulating the root system of a tree to strengthen the legs,” Dock said.

Alexandra Bowers uses a wood-burning tool to etch the image of a feather onto a wooden box. Bowers, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at ASU, is one of three artists in residence at the "Biomimicry" exhibit at the Tempe Center for the Arts. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

 The program includes three artists in residence, photographer Nissa Kubly, sculptor Jose Benavides and wood-burning artist Alexandra Bowers, who are working with ASU faculty members in the sciences to broaden their understanding of how nature informs design. Benavides and Bowers both received degrees from ASU.

“This is an in-depth study for them to take their work in another direction,” Dock said of the collaboration.

The three are working in pop-up studios in the gallery through July 21.

Another part of the biomimicry exhibit is outreach. The center is holding several events for community members to experience the connection between art and nature. Several of the events will feature ASU faculty, including:

• Family Arts and Sciences workshops every Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. The July 15 session will feature faculty from the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU, and July 22 will be “Beyond the Collection Box” with ASU’s Natural History Collections.

• Satellite workshops at the Edna Vihel Center for the Arts in Tempe on June 24 and July 15 with artists and Kyra Galanis, who has a degree in biomimicry from ASU.

• Bee Hive Café for Teens from 4 to 7 p.m. June 16 and June 23 will feature free brainstorming sessions for art groups, science clubs and robotics teams, with free coffee. Boradkar will speak to the teens at 4:30 p.m. June 23.

• Dayna Baumeister, co-founder and co-director of the Biomimicry Institute at ASU, will give a free lecture at 7 p.m. Aug. 24.

Boradkar said he’s excited to discuss biomimicry with young people, and that outreach is an important part of the Biomimicry Center’s mission.

“We approach it by talking about the concept of ‘biophilia’ — ‘bio’ is life and ‘philia’ is affection,” he said.

“We all have an innate desire to be connected to nature.”

Click here for details and information on how to register for the satellite workshops.

 

Top photo: Artist Alexandra Bowers holds a dandelion seed, an inspiration for her work. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4503

 
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ASU team will present C-Turtle papers at MIT, Stanford this summer.
ASU-designed C-Turtle robot can navigate different terrains, built to be cheap.
May 25, 2017

Technology comes from collaboration between computer science, mechanical engineering and biology

It looks like the beginning of a Star Wars movie: a lone robot pushing itself across the sand with a pair of orange flippers toward lumpy red buttes in the distance.

Look closer at it. The leading edge is curved upward like a turtle’s bottom shell, so it doesn’t dig into the ground. The flippers are curved, also like a turtle’s.

The robot looks like a turtle because that was the intent of a pair of Arizona State University roboticists and a band of doctoral students.

It’s called C-Turtle. Designed with inspiration from biology — one of the team members is earning a doctorate in evolutionary biology — it learns how to navigate different types of terrain.

C-Turtle was an exercise in developmental robotics, where you build robots to test hypotheses. The team will present two papers about C-Turtle this summer at MIT and Stanford. One paper will compare the design with its biological inspirations. The other will describe the robot’s algorithmic learning process in the lab and in the desert.

 

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now 

The robot was a collaboration between different backgrounds: computer science, mechanical engineering and biology.

“From my point of view, it’s a fascinating approach,” said Heni Ben Amor, an assistant professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering.

Ben Amor collaborated with Daniel Aukes, an assistant professor in engineering at the Polytechnic School. Ben Amor’s background is in artificial intelligence. Aukes’ is in designing, fabricating and building robots.

Ben Amor’s team worked on machine learning; Aukes’ team worked on the manufacturing aspect.

“I’m really pleased my students were able to pair a really simple mechanism like this robot to the higher aspects of computer sciences that Heni is working on,” Aukes said.

C-Turtle took one hour of learning to walk in the sand in an earlier desert test. It’s made for sandy environments. “It finds that on its own,” team member Andrew Janssen said. “We don’t tell it what to do.”

“If we use tricks from nature, it learns much faster,” Ben Amor said. “You can use that initial inspiration from nature to get things going.”

Janssen, a doctoral candidate in evolutionary biology, helped design the robot. He traced the profile of a sea-turtle flipper.

“It turns out the ones shaped like that work better than just a square paddle,” Janssen said. “We tested things that are impossible in nature. They didn’t work.”

C-Turtle has to dig hard to propel itself across the sand, but not so hard it digs holes. Nature-inspired, the design succeeds.

Sea turtles are “gigantic animals and they move across sand pretty easily,” Janssen said.

Biology short-cuts problems in robotics, including design, Aukes said. He has worked with a biologist at Harvard, using laminate fabrication to imitate insect wings.

“This synergy between biologist and robotics designers goes back a ways,” he said.

Another unusual aspect of C-Turtle is that it’s fabricated out of thin cardboard. They’re designed to be cheap and disposable. Each robot cost about $70. The motors cost about $5 and the chips about $10. Joseph Campbell, a Ph.D. student in the Interactive Robotics Laboratory, was one of the designers.

Three-dimensional printers are making robotics easier. Parts don’t have to be laboriously machined. Aukes teaches a foldable-robotics class.

Team member Kevin Luck, a computer science doctoral candidate, envisions a stack of paper and a laser cutter being shipped to Mars someday and a fleet of bots self-assembling.

“At the end of the day, you would have a working robot,” Luck said.

Potentially, a pack of them could roam around on Earth, monitoring certain types of conditions or performing tasks like searching minefields.

“How do you have a lot of these little robots collaborate and learn from each other?” Aukes said. “I’m excited that we can use this to work on the complex dynamics between robots.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4502