Research Talk - The Hidden Genius of Caterpillars: The Role of Material Properties in the Control of Soft-bodied Organisms / Robots
While bio-mimicry techniques have allowed us to build numerous robots that mimic biological organisms, to date not one of these robots has been composed of soft materials. Nature shows us that soft-bodied organisms are capable of overcoming challenges no rigid- bodied organism can. These organisms feature unparalleled versatility, which suggests that soft-bodied robots could surpass the utility of their rigid predecessors. For the most part the prohibition on soft-materials in robotics has been rooted in a belief that their compliance makes them impossible to control and model. This talk will discuss recent research that proposes to overcome these challenges. The research focuses on the Manduca sexta (Tobacco Hornworm), a soft-bodied caterpillar, as an exemplar. The Manduca sexta is capable of locomotion using a body with nearly infinite degrees of freedom, yet its nervous systemís complexity is comparable to similar rigid-bodied organisms with dramatically fewer degrees of freedom. Where does its hidden genius lie? And how can we develop computationally efficient models of its locomotion? To explore these questions, evolutionary computation techniques are combined with novel multi-scale modeling methodologies to automatically evolve computationally efficient models. These models are then used to expose the relationship between control complexity and soft-material properties. By developing an understanding of which materials lend themselves to control, and how systems composed of these materials can be modeled, it is hoped that soft-bodied robots can become a reality.