Assistant Professor Kaushik Jayaram sees nature as a giant catalogue of design ideas. Engineers can “leaf through” it to see how various species have overcome problems–many of the solutions exquisitely developed over time to perfection. It’s the ideal setup for inspiration to reverse-engineer solutions to many of the problems we see today.
“That doesn’t mean it is always the best solution though,” he said. “Clearly understanding an animal’s evolutionary history and the tradeoffs it is making to solve these problems is important. Once you do that and combine it with the best engineering practices, you can start to make a custom solution. With such a tool or platform, you can then generate even more hypotheses and go back to get more inspiration from the catalogue.”
Jayaram came to the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering from Harvard University, where he was a research associate. He earned his PhD in 2015 from the University of California, Berkeley studying the robustness of biological exoskeletons with cockroaches. He plans to continue studying those insects, among others–which he calls “great model systems”–to improve a robot’s ability to recover when they lose a leg, for example.
“When an animal encounters damage like that, they are often still able to recover and accomplish a task like escaping. A car, on the other hand, drops to zero effectiveness when it gets one single flat tire,” he said. “So my lab is trying to understand those kinds of mechanisms that allow the insect to effectively locomote and discover general principles governing them. How do they adapt to the external environment? How do they tolerate deficiencies and learn from their experiences?”
Jayaram added that animals are also skilled at anticipating uncertainties to avoid fatal damage, can tolerate construction flaws and can rapidly adapt to changing environments. Those are all skills that could eventually be applied through his research to robots being used for search and rescue, environmental monitoring and personal assistance.
The robots his team are creating to study robustness are small, weighing less than 0.5 grams and only 2 centimeters in length. Fabricated in an origami-style process with a laser machine, the goal is to make them even smaller than a cockroach but capable of doing the same things.
Jayaram said he decided to come to CU Boulder in part because of the Interdisciplinary Research Themes. He is a member of the Multi-Functional Materials and the Autonomous Systems themes.
“It was a big draw for me to have these two areas identified by the college as areas of concentration that were also my research strengths and focuses,” he said.
Multi-Functional Materials Director Nikolaus Correll said there are many faculty in the group working in the bio-inspired space. When taken as a whole, the college is beginning to amass a strong expertise in the area.
“Creating materials that imitate the multi-functionality of living systems is a central goal of the theme,” Correll said. “My own research is inspired by octopus camouflage, and I know that Assistant Professor Orit Peleg is working with bees and Professor Franck Vernerey is working with ants, so you can see there is plenty of interest and willing collaborators in this area–especially with Kaushik joining.”
Jayaram is teaching a course this semester titled Bio-Inspired Robots, which he says has broad applications, noting that it was approved for the biomedical option for undergraduates in mechanical engineering and biomedical minor. His lectures will address the biomimicry design process using case studies that include gecko-inspired adhesives and artificial muscles. Students will also collaborate on original bioinspired robotic devices, which will be showcased at an expo at the end of the course.
He also has several events and activities planned on campus to encourage students to explore how nature can inform their own designs.
“This is just the beginning for bioinspired engineering. I believe that as human technologies take on more of the characteristics of nature, nature becomes an important teacher,” Jayaram said. ”Bioinspired design will rapidly become the leading paradigm for the development of new technologies that will lead to significant scientific, societal and economic impact in the near future.”