I recently spoke with Dr. Hamid Vejdani, an assistant professor in Mechanical Engineering department at Lawrence Technological University in suburban Detroit. Vejdani’s research interests include bioinspired robotics, behavior design and control design of robots, and dynamical modeling. Before joining LTU, he was a postdoctoral research associate at Brown University, where he studied dynamical agility of flapping flight in hummingbirds and bats.
Vejdani has developed and implemented control strategies for walking and running bipedal robots and he has been exploring the mechanics of flapping flight systems inspired by stability, maneuverability and agility of natural fliers. We chatted about the main thrust of his research in robotics, “Bio-inspiration.” This concept means getting inspiration from nature and applying the lessons learned into designing and controlling capable engineering products and, in his research, robots.
DW: Biomimicry receives a lot of press, especially in the robotics field. You’ve said you’re more focused on bio-inspired designs. How do these two approaches differ?
HV: Basically, in biomimicry you try to mimic nature as close as possible. Although it is a fantastic way to start, it will not be that helpful when you want to expand the findings to other scales or purposes. In bioinspired designs, we try to understand the fundamental physics behind the phenomena (which can sometimes start with mimicking in the beginning) and therefore those principles can be expanded and used for any scale or application because the laws of physics. Once you understand them and apply them appropriately, they are the same for all of our engineering products.
DW: What are some examples of bio-inspired designs that you are working on?
HV: I am currently working on two bio-inspired robotics projects here at Lawrence Technological University. One is inspired by agility and maneuverability of kangaroo running (a kangaroo running robot) and the other is inspired by the efficiency and stability of hummingbird hovering (hummingbird-scale hovering robot).
Although it seems diverse in the first glance — running and flying — when you study the principles of animal locomotion in more detail, you notice that there is a common trace in all animal locomotion types. That is the use of their natural dynamics (mechanical design of the system) in providing help to achieve the desired motion. My research is to understand how these natural dynamical characteristics — like mass distribution and sizes — can be used to enhance the stability and maneuverability of locomotion in each case.
DW: Do you see practical applications of bio-inspired design for industry? What are some examples?
HV: Basically, the industry (and in a broader sense engineering) is full of bio-inspired design products and ideas from architectural designs and materials for cooling and force resistance to airspace industry and defense. For example, look at airplanes; we do not mimic the wings from birds, we found out that wings and tails are necessary for flight. Now we have airplanes that are basically fixed winged vehicles, in contrary to natural fliers, which have flapping wings. So, we got inspired from nature and developed the airplane industry.
I think the robotics industry will continue to grow much faster in developing robots that can get outside of the structured labs and help human in real world. And guess who can be the source of the inspiration for designing such machines? Probably those who have been operating in real world for millions of years: animals.