“Aerial Jellyfish” in The Economist

A recent issue of The Economist included an article in the technology section titled “Aerial jellyfish.”  The article praises NYU researchers for their design of a tiny, robotic flying machine inspired by a jellyfish.  The flying robot has four wings, each of which is a few centimeters-long and leaf-shaped.  Opposite wings beat simultaneously and out of phase with the other pair of wings to provide lift.  This design proves to be more dynamically stable than past designs for tiny flying robots modeled after birds and insects.  The video below shows the robot in action.

 I was excited to see biomimicry receiving attention in the popular press. (One and a half million people subscribe to the print edition of The Economist, and many more read the same content online.)  UNTIL I read the last few sentences of the article. NYU researchers “Dr. Ristroph and Dr. Childress seem to have solved an important problem…and in doing so they have also shown that evolution, though clever, is not always as clever as human engineers – for as far as is known nature has neither now, nor at any time in the past, come up with the equivalent of aerial jellyfish.” WTF?!

First off, nature is not an engineer, so comparing the “cleverness” of natural evolution and human engineering makes no sense.  Organisms are not engineered for the future.  Selective processes only respond to immediate environmental cues. Second, the fact that a jellyfish only inhabits the sea and not the sky is completely irrelevant. Yes, air can be compressed more easily than water, but freely flowing air acts very much like water. Both air and water are fluids. The jellyfish models dynamically stable movement through a liquid medium.  Nature conceived the design of the jellyfish, and human engineers repurposed it for use in a different liquid medium. That’s what biomimicry is all about, making “big picture” connections; finding new contexts in which to apply nature’s time-tested design principles.

I should emphasize that in no way do I intend to devalue the contribution made by Dr. Ristroph and Dr. Childress.  Quite the opposite, in fact; their design of this flying robot is impressive and demonstrates the value of a biomimetic approach.  I’m encouraged to see mainstream scientific developments reinforcing biomimicry’s potential. I’m just bummed that the author decided to conclude an otherwise enjoyable read with the wacky claim that the aerial jellyfish design proves humans are cleverer than nature. Instead of comparing human engineering to natural selection, the author should have considered whether the outcomes of natural selection – surviving biological models – have anything to offer us.  The aerial jellyfish shows not that humans are better than nature, but that biological analogies stimulate human creativity in new ways and enhance our problem-solving ability. It is unlikely human engineers would have envisioned this innovative, jellyfish-like, flying robot had there not already been this natural model upon which to base its design.

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