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Forward Thinking Pest Control

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Forward Thinking Pest Control

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RI, MA EHS Pest Control Blog

They climb walls, burrow through garbage, squeeze under pantry doors and run like greased lightning when you turn on the kitchen lights.

Most people don't admire the skills of the common cockroach, but for a team of Case Western University scientists and engineers, the vermin are a source of inspiration.

The researchers' goal is to build a robot that can move just like Periplaneta americana.

"They are very fast and very strong. They have amazing abilities," said Roger Quinn, a Case Western mechanical and aerospace engineer who has created five working models.

"You would love to make a robot that could do these things."

Their work is in a growing field called biomimetics - the word translates to "mimicry of life" - in which researchers attempt to reverse-engineer the gifts evolution bestowed upon plants and animals.

In this field, a clam leads to a self-burying anchor, a lotus leaf inspires a self-cleaning window, a shark helps Olympic swimmers set records, and a worm helps doctors glue shattered bones.

"People will always be inspired by nature because that's what we see and we see that it works," said Gary Brawley, a research leader in equipment development and mechanical systems at Battelle.

"We try to re-create the success that nature has provided."

This branch of science isn't new. Leonardo da Vinci's design for an ornithopter - a device that flies by flapping its wings - was inspired by the birds he watched soar over Florence. The braces used to support the Eiffel Tower were designed to mimic the femur. And Velcro? Inspired by how burrs stick to dog fur.

More recently, scientists have worked on replicating the sticky feet of the gecko to climb walls.

A significant advance in medical technology might lie within the sandcastle worm. It has an organ, shaped like a catcher's mitt, that makes a glue that sets underwater.
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Russell Stewart, an associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Utah, has studied how the sandcastle worm uses this glue to build a tough shelter out of sand and seashell fragments.

"This worm literally glues a skeleton together underwater," he said.

Stewart analyzed the proteins in the glue and made his own in part from common polymers found in floor wax and fingernail polish.

He said he hopes further tests will show that his glue would work inside the human body to help heal broken bones.

Do these kinds of projects really work outside the lab? Just look in the pool.

Those high-tech, full-body swimsuits that competitive swimmers wore featured microscopic ridges and grooves that mimic the tiny scales on shark skin.

Bharat Bhushan, director of Ohio State University's Nanoprobe Laboratory for Bio- and Nanotechnology & Biomimetics, studied the suits and found that the ridges help reduce the drag of turbulent water on a swimmer's body by as much as 30 percent.

Bhushan also studies lotus leaves, which quickly repel water. As the water rolls off, it carries away dust and dirt, allowing the leaf to clean itself.

Tiny microscopic bumps in the structure of the leaf combined with a special wax help create the self-cleaning effect. Bhushan said he has been able to re-create those structures and materials in the lab.

"We can do it at least as good if not better."

So why don't we have self-cleaning windows? The process, researchers say, requires creating carbon nano-tubes.

"It's an expensive route for consumer applications," Bhushan said. "Now we are sort of backing off and looking for cheaper alternatives."

Erik Edwards, a Battelle materials scientist, is looking at the special survival skills employed by a reptile that lives in an Australian desert. The lizard, called a thorny devil, collects water where there seemingly is none.

The secret is in its skin, where a network of micro-capillaries, or tiny tubes, collects and condenses water molecules in the air and funnels them to the lizard's mouth."It would be useful in places where water is becoming much more of a highly sought commodity," Edwards said.

Amos Winter, a doctoral student of mechanical engineering at MIT, developed something he calls "robo clam," a robot that imitates the ability of the razor clam to quickly bury itself in sand.

Instead of pounding itself into ground, the clam uses a wriggling motion that sucks in water to create a tiny pool of quicksand. This technique, Winter said, uses far less energy than others.

"These animals could go half a kilometer deep on the energy of an AA battery," he said.

Winter's robo clams use the same technique and achieve nearly the same effect. He said large-scale robots could be employed to better anchor off-shore drilling rigs or provide a cheaper method of laying trans-ocean communication cables.

At Case Western in Cleveland, Quinn and insect neurobiologist Roy Ritzmann say their cockroach-based technology could be used one day to send robots into areas too hazardous for humans.

The Case Western lab also has created robotic ants, crickets and worms.

Although the researchers say they have the mechanics of cockroach motion down, they now are working to attach a computer brain that's modeled after the insect's.

"Instead of having someone drive it with every detail, the driver simply says, 'You go over there, and if you reach a barrier, figure it out,' " Ritzmann said.

To get there, researchers have to stick electrodes into a cockroach's brain and observe which parts control different movements.

"This is a long process. You make baby steps," Ritzmann said. "They actually have very sophisticated brains. We just don't know a lot yet about how they work."

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