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Harvard Takes Cues from Nature in New Biologically Inspired Engineering

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

The RoboBee. Metamorpho. Octobot. These are just a few of the remarkable biologically inspired technologies the Wyss Institute at Harvard is creating that are changing the future face of technology, environmentalism, agriculture, and healthcare.

The Harvard Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering (HIBIE) was initially founded in 2008 as a response to the Harvard Provost’s request for faculty to envision the future of bioengineering at the university. Creators of HIBIE recognized that the most significant shift in bioengineering is the degree to which we now understand how nature builds, sustains, and manufactures. With this knowledge, it is possible to imitate these models to innovate new technologies that work in the same way, with the same intelligence and efficiency.

After Harvard received a generous gift of $125 million from Swiss philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering was born in 2009 – a fully operational research institute working to create innovative technologies to solve medical and environmental issues and provide powerful help to society. The faculty and researchers at the Wyss Institute model their own research efforts after nature’s model – they bring their diverse disciplines and knowledge together from areas such as adaptive materials, medical devices, and microsystems engineering to achieve truly incredible discoveries and creations together to better the planet.

A perfect example of this are Wyss Institute’s Kilobots.

Have you ever sat and watched how an ant colony operates? While it may seem worker ants are rushing about chaotically, ants are one of the most successful colonizing creatures on earth and utilize a complex communication system and collective behavior strategy to create remarkable engineering feats.

Inspired by ants’ powerful collective behavior, the Wyss research team has created a 1,024 strong force of Kilobots as part of their self-organizing research group. Whereas robots historically have acted as individual entities, Wyss researchers are delving into creating robots that are able to act collectively, enabling them to carry out larger-scale projects. These Kilobots are low-cost to make and are set up with a unique system of vibration motors for mobility and reflected infrared light for communication.

Each robot is purposefully created with limitations that require the assistance of the others – in this way, they are forced to communicate and work together to achieve a common goal. The future uses for these robots include search and rescue operations, construction, medical assistance, and environmental remediation.

Check out this amazing video about the process!

Interested in discovering more mind-blowing nature-based technologies? Click here for your daily dose of awe!

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