Tech Researchers Inspired by Marine Life

At least that's what it looks like at this stage of the research. Koehl and her team will now work with neuroscientists to try to determine what kind of electrical signals are triggered by the odor-sensitive hairs. Only then will they be able to say if the lobsters are really deciphering odors, or just messing around.

The scientists picked lobsters for their research partly because a lot of work has already been done on the nervous system of spiny lobsters.

Swim Like a Fish

Meanwhile, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Texas A&M University are also studying marine organisms, but for a very different purpose. A ship, or even a submarine, leaves a wake as it moves across the sea, and it's clearly visible from the air.

That's not a problem for a pleasure boat, but for a warship it's sort of like tying red bandannas along the road while trying to run from an enemy.

And since submarines are driven by propellers, they also make a lot of noise that is easily detected by underwater listening devices.

A fish doesn't do that. So the scientists are trying to figure out how to make a vessel act more like a fish.

"The military wants at least small vehicles to maneuver more like fish do rather than like clunky submarines," says Othon Rediniotis, an aerospace engineer at Texas A&M.

Rediniotis' team is using tiny wires that expand or shrink with temperature changes to mimic the muscles of a fish. The goal is to build a device with a metal skeleton that will flex back and forth as it moves through the water, just like a fish.

And it would be helpful if the device could do something as it cruises through the water. A set of arms would be useful.

Grab Like an Octopus

So scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Weismann Institute in Israel are trying to figure out how an octopus can move its eight arms independently of each other without tying itself in a knot.

"How the octopus controls each arm so that tasks can be performed without chaos, and without the need to spend enormous time in deciding how to perform a specific arm movement, is precisely what robotics designers would like to know," says Tom McKenna, program manager for the Office of Naval Research, which is funding the work.

So far, the findings are a bit intriguing. It appears that the octopus can issue a command to one arm, and then ignore it while the arm follows through. That leaves the animal free to go on with its business, using its other arms, without wasting energy and time checking up on the first arm.

The arms themselves are a marvel. They have no joints, and they are extremely flexible. They are arms that only a robotics engineer could love, perhaps, but they are among nature's wonders.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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