Baddass Biomimicry Part 2 Science fiction becomes science fact!

skeeterHave you ever watched a dragonfly? They can hover almost as if frozen in space wings beating so fast they appear as a blur, land with delicate precision on a waving blade of grass, skim gracefully over a pond and fly off at speeds that defy sight. Surely a target for biomimicry and that of course is what has happened. A helicopter used by sea rescue services based on dragonfly flight would be wonderful. Hmmm, scaling up insects is tricky. The fossil record indicates that the largest flying insects existed some 275 million years ago had wingspans of only around 700 mm (28 inches). So may be a dragonfly based rescue helicopter is conceptually inept. So in this case biomimicry has to stay in scale. In which case if you could mimic a dragonfly or aspects of a dragonfly what would you mimic. Given the aerial dexterity of the dragonfly it’s not surprising that Animal Dynamics, an Oxford University spin off, has developed Skeeter a tiny flapping winged drone specially designed for covert surveillance. Weighing no more than 30g, and designed to cost less and fly for longer than other hand-launched drones, it could, its creators claim, help reshape urban warfare. Biomimicry transforming urban warfare! It’s not difficult to see biomimicry playing out in armaments developments. Should this be discussed in D&T lessons? On the grounds of the subject reflecting activities in the world outside school it is difficult to say ‘No’. But any discussion will move into tricky territory very quickly. A surveillance drone, even a tiny one, can easily provide targeting information and missile flight path data for larger weaponised drones. And without too much difficulty be developed into a lethal weapon in its own right. Some argue that the basic technology itself is has no moral compass. The guidance technology used in missiles can just as easily be used for autonomous farm equipment. Where does this leave the designer? And where does it leave the design & technology teacher? As always comments welcome.

Baddass Biomimicry

antEarly in 2013 when there was considerable debate about the government’s proposed National Curriculum Programme of Study for design & technology. Dick Olver, chairman of BAE Systems, one of the UKs biggest companies, criticised the government’s proposal on the following grounds: The draft proposals for design & technology did “not meet the needs of a technologically literate society. Instead of introducing children to new design techniques, such as biomimicry (how we can emulate nature to solve human problems), we now have a focus on cookery. Instead of developing skills in computer-aided design, we have the introduction of horticulture. Instead of electronics and control, we have an emphasis on basic mechanical maintenance tasks. In short, something has gone very wrong.” The result of such authoritative criticism was a complete revision of the proposed programme of study such that it included the following statement under the teaching of design: To use a variety of approaches, such as biomimicry and user-centred design, to generate creative ideas and avoid stereotypical responses. Although biomimicry was a non-statutory example of a design strategy it was mentioned by name.

The Design and Technology Association ran inset sessions to help teachers understand what was for many a new idea. And many teachers have since taught pupils at both KS3 and KS4 about biomimicry, particularly how designers have used it as a creative product design tool. At its most basic the development of webbed gloves and flippers to aid swimming (biomimicking a frog) and more sophisticated the use of corrugated card for a cycle helmet based on the bone structure in a woodpecker’s skull. And of course it’s possible to view the circular economy as a systems approach based on biomimicry that can be used to move the world away from a destructive linear economy.

Kill Decision CoverUnderlying this appears to be the idea of biomimicry as a benign design tool; one that can only be used for good with few if any harmful consequences. But this view misrepresents nature and the constant struggle between and within species for survival. This was made very apparent to me when I read Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez. It’s a rollicking good read but I won’t go into too much detail as this will spoil the story for those who haven’t yet read this excellent piece of science fiction which borders very much on science fact. A key element of the story is to use biomimicry of weaver ants to develop swarms of lethal quadcopter drones that once unleashed can operate without human intervention and control. Weaver ants are able to communicate with one another by laying down and following pheromone trails which indicate the task to be accomplished be that foraging or territory defense. In the case of territory defense the trail will lead more and more ants to the sites where defense is necessary and even large intruders are soon overcome by the multitudes of smaller weaver ants that converge on the site. The brain power of individual weaver ants is of course very small but the colony achieves highly effective defense by getting large numbers in the right place at the right time to attack and kill the intruders. So imagine using biomimicry to transfer this ability to a swarm of drones, each drone with highly limited AI and equipped with simple but effective weapons.

Noel SharkeyThis led me to ponder the role of design strategies in general. In themselves they might be considered neutral in terms of being intrinsically good or bad but their use will of course depend on the intentions pursued by the designer. So the buck clearly stops with us humans. The case of robots and the intention to use them in warfare has led Noel Sharkey, Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics & Public Engagement University of Sheffield, to urge extreme caution and argue for international conventions to govern their development. So as always with design & technology we find ourselves in territory where values are as important if not more so than knowledge, understanding and skills.

Stuff we like about Robotics

Robotics VSI2We’ve just added a page of Stuff we like about Robotics. We want to provide some background to the Robotics materials we have published for teachers as a part of the Disruptive Technologies project and so we’ve gathered together some books, websites and other materials that we have found useful in developing our thinking about robotics as a disruptive technology.

To help with navigating what turned out to be quite a large collection, the resources are grouped into what we hope are useful areas for teachers:

Start here
Teaching robotics
Influences on robot design
The Personal; how robots and humans shape each other
The Social; the impact of robots on society
Building robots

The aim is that stuff that appears on this page will remain relevant over a reasonable time. However there is also a constant stream of robotics news at the moment, much of which is ephemeral but could be of use in your teaching. Clearly, if you have the time and interest, you could pick up a lot of these yourself by visiting sites like the BBC, Wired or MIT’s Technology Review. More easily (for many) you could also follow David on Twitter as he often shares these kinds of items. In addition to all of that, we’ll occasionally publish on this blog a compendium of robotics news items that we think might be intriguing, surprising or otherwise compelling.

If you have recommendations for resources that should appear on this page, or interesting news items that we might blog about, please do let us know.

Commons enquiry in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence

Robotics TGThe House of Commons Science and Technology Committee are holding an enquiry into Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. David and Torben submitted written evidence which says, in a nut shell, ‘teach young people about them at school through D&T lessons that encourage them to consider the consequences of deploying technologies’. Clearly our Disruptive Technologies Project is aimed to help teachers do just that. And as if on cue The Robotics Teaching Guide is now available here, later than expected but we think you’ll find it useful. As always comments much appreciated.

Robotics Teacher Briefing – available earlier than expected!

Robotics TBTo complement the Disruptive Technologies Teachers’ Guide we are producing a Teacher Briefing about each individual disruptive technology. Each briefing is organised as follows:

  • Sections 1 and 2 discuss the disruptive technology in broad terms.
  • Section 3 considers two or three particular examples in some detail.
  • Section 4 discusses how the technology might be disruptive using the McKinsey criteria for disruption.
  • Section 5 considers trends in uptake and impact.
  • Section 6 discusses contentious issues that might arise in relation to the deployment of the disruptive technology.
  • Section 7 discusses briefly the interaction of the technology under consideration with other disruptive technologies.
  • Section 8 lists useful web references that will allow the reader to keep up to date.

The Robotics Teacher Briefing is now available.

Robots – in our future whether we like it or not!

Where do you see the future of robots? With C3PO, the innocuous and benevolent protocol droid in Star Wars or with the Terminator the implacable assassin sent from the future to destroy us? And as a result, what would you have young people learn about robotics?

Are robots really the next big thing? Will they be a disruptive technology changing the status quo, altering the way people live and work, providing new products and services and giving profit for shrewd investors? Who will win and who will lose as robots invade areas of activity previously carried out by humans. Already robots are widely used in manufacturing. There is more than a little interest in robots for military purposes. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects ) has significant interest in robotics. Their recent robotics challenge focused on search, rescue and alleviate with regard to disasters ( ) but it’s all to easy to see how this could become search and destroy. Robots may have a place in education supporting if not replacing teachers as evidenced by Garnet Valley School Board spending nearly $50,000 to purchase five humanoid robots that will assist teachers with the instruction of students with autism and other learning disabilities. ( James Dyson has decided to invest in robotics ( ) with a special emphasis on robots for the home. What impact will these have on the employment of those who make their living as cleaners? Some of the biggest commercial enterprises are gaining expertise in robotics through expensive acquisitions. Google has bought up seven robot companies ( ) plus Boston Dynamics a military robot-maker ( ) and Amazon has purchased Kiva Systems which makes robots used in shipping centers ( Japan is investing heavily in developing robots that might care for the elderly ( ). Even making love is not immune from the influence of robots as shown by the writing of David Levy in Love + Sex with Robots – less salacious and more informative than you might think at first sight ( )

Recent science fiction films have provided view points at two extremes. The film Robot and Frank makes a poignant case for the human-robot relation ( ) The RoboCop remake ( ) discusses the ethics of using robots to make decisions that have in the past been made by humans.

Illah Nourbakhsh in his brilliant book Robot Futures ( ) develops a range of scenarios in which the impact of robot behaviour isn’t what was intended by their inventors.  Illah suggests that in robots we have invented a new species that operates as a living glue between our physical world and the digital universe we have created. Robots can operate in the real world and at the same time can be fully connected to the digital world. This is already reflected in the development of an internet for robots ( ). Illah is impassioned in his plea for a robot future that is not dystopic:

“Robotics is becoming a potent force, but, like much of technology, it has no innate moral compass. It is destined to influence society, and I believe the early adopters are already apparent: corporations, militaries, governments, and a privileged band of technically savvy individuals. What is missing from this list is the interests of citizens and local communities, motivated neither by power nor by economic value, hoping to contribute to a sustainable quality of life. Our challenge and opportunity lies in becoming the vanguards of ever-better robot futures, and this means we must bend the lines of influence that robotics will forge. If we succeed, we make an alternative vision into soaring reality: robots as new, interactive media for making local change; communities empowered to measure, problem solve, demonstrate, and act to improve their conditions. In this possible robotic future, the robotics revolution can affirm the most nonrobotic quality of our world: our humanity.”   

And we teach children about robotics in our school curriculum in design & technology. The National curriculum isn’t prescriptive here. It provides opportunities through statements such as

Purpose of study

  • Through the evaluation of past and present design and technology, they develop a critical understanding of its impact on daily life and the wider world.


  • Use research and exploration, such as the study of different cultures, to identify and understand user needs
  • Develop specifications to inform the design of innovative, functional, appealing products that respond to needs in a variety of situations


  • Investigate new and emerging technologies
  • Understand developments in design and technology, its impact on individuals, society and the environment, and the responsibilities of designers, engineers and technologists

Technical Knowledge

  • Apply computing and use electronics to embed intelligence in products that respond to inputs [for example, sensors], and control outputs [for example, actuators], using programmable components [for example, microcontrollers].

These can be starting points for two aspects of the design and technology curriculum. The first aspect is that which develops in young people a perspective on any technology and the way it might be deployed. Here I would want young people to consider what robots might be able to do and whether it is appropriate for them to do these things. The second aspect is the development of technological capability so that young people would learn how to design, make and programme robots to carry out specific tasks. Both are essential for any holistic appreciation of robotics. It is easy to be seduced by the ‘fun’ of designing and making a robot without considering the wider implications of robots in society. Considering robots in society becomes fantasy if not grounded to some extent in the realities of coding, communication, control systems and actuators.

So I return to the question at the beginning what would you have young people learn about robotics?