Not unlike a superhero leaping into the air to protect humanity, a new jumping robot can reach a height of 30 meters (100 feet), the highest achieved by any known natural or engineered jumper. The robot, designed by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, uses a mechanical advantage over known biological systems.
Although engineers have designed jumping machines that emulate or were inspired by biological jumpers for decades, the researchers started with questions about this approach. Their findings appear in Nature.
The authors realized that there is a lack of understanding about how to compare biological and human-designed jumpers. They took a first step and created a “vocabulary” of parts used by all jumping machines. This vocabulary consisted of four main parts: a motor, a spring, a linkage, and a payload. In a biological system, the “motor” could be a muscle and the “payload” could be the entire insect. A human-designed system may have a pneumatic or hydraulic system as a “motor.”
Translating jumping machines into a common language makes it possible to compare jumpers against each other. One of the key findings is that the jump height of a biological jumper is limited to how much energy its motor (or muscle) can produce in one contraction. Human-engineered jumpers, on the other hand, can make use of devices such as ratchets or motors that can continuously rotate. These engineering tricks allow more energy to be used in a single jump. This key difference in energetics gives engineered jumpers their advantage.
Casting Aside Biology and Focusing on Human Designs
The authors next used their analysis of energetics to design a new jumping machine. For this attempt, the authors put on blinders. Completely ignoring biology, the authors attempted to optimize and make the best use of energy according to their findings across human-designed jumping machines.
The resulting device is composed of carbon fiber bands connected by loops of rubber. It invokes the tension you feel when looking at an archer drawing a bow and looks like two bicycle wheels that crashed into each other.
Analysis of this new jumping machine shows that the design minimizes losses in six separate energy-usage steps. For example, the authors describe a feature of jumping machines they call the “foot.” The foot of a machine is composed of the parts that remain stationary during acceleration. Having a larger foot is an energy-sink. The shape-changing approach used in the new jumping machine was designed to reduce the size of the foot.
The new jumping machine, which is just less than 30 cm (one foot) tall and weighs slightly more than 30 g (one ounce), can launch itself to 30 m (100 feet) in the air, with an acceleration force of 315g. For comparison, the best-known natural jumper is a tiny insect known as a froghopper. It can jump as high as 70 cm (28 inches), more than 100 times its body length. Emulating biological systems has been, and will continue to be, a useful practice. However, the current work shows that researchers can achieve significant gains by focusing on human designs and trying to optimize them.
Could the Next Champion Jumper Be Waiting to be Discovered?
This work can easily leave the impression that human engineering is quickly surpassing everything that biology has developed in terms of jumping machines. However, the world is large, especially when you are looking for tiny insects that can jump high and fast. It is possible that a field scientist may yet find a new contender.
Another interesting facet to consider is the finding that the energy available to a biological jumping machine is limited to a muscle contracting once. However, a paper published in Science in 2013 found that a planthopper called Issus uses mechanical gears to help with jumping. There may be a system using a biological-version of a ratcheting gear just waiting to be found and described.
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