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Birds, Bats Are Models For Next Generation Drones 

Engineers working to build smaller flying machines are looking to those that know how to do it best—bats, birds and bees. Unlike human constructions, these animals use flexible flight surfaces to maneuver more precisely through air. 

In this 2012 video, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research presents some of the projects it is funding at universities like Harvard and Brown to make next-generation flying surveillance and warfighting tools.

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University of California, Berkeley engineers are working on cooperative systems to control robots through complex environments. In this demonstration, a ground station uses computer vision to guide the group’s new 13-gram H2Bird ornithopter robot through a window.

The ground station, whose view we see in the second gif, uses real-time motion tracking over a live video stream to send steering guidance to the H2Bird micro air vehicle. With that information, the robot can successfully maneuver through a tight window frame. Their paper on the work is available here.

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MIT researchers have unraveled exactly how water birds like ducks and cormorants keep dry when diving in up to 100 feet of water. The secret is a combination of water-repelling oil the birds spread on their feathers during preening and the tightly interlocking structure of the feather’s barbs and barbules.

By testing and modeling the action of water on a feather, they were able to see that the bird’s plumage doesn’t totally repel the liquid and can actually get wet when immersed. But the bird’s preening oil increases the energy needed for water to wet the feather. When the animal leaves the water, the wetting is reversed and the water is ejected off the feather.

"If a feather gets wet, there is no need for it to dry out, in the traditional sense of evaporation,” says Robert Cohen, a chemical engineering professor on the research team. “It can dry by directly ejecting the water from its structure, as the pressure is reduced as it comes back up from its dive.” 

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Cell Membranes Are Not Boring

by Michael Keller

To many of us, the image we have of our cells is that which we saw in our biology textbooks. Most are sort of roundish or ovular, though some, like the nerve cells that grow crazy axon tails and dendrite branches, have a more arresting shape.

The textbook and the microscope showed us that there are definitely lots of things going on inside, but the cell itself kind of just sits there and hangs out. The bag that holds all the goo in, the cellular membrane, looks sort of smooth and not really all that interesting.

Except that’s all wrong. Many cells have places to go along with things to do. That’s where structures called filopodia and lamella come in. These projections on the surface of the cell pull it along to where it needs to go, sense chemical signals in the environment and help the cell to interact with other cells.

The gifs above of filopodia waving and retracting on the surface of a cell were made from video created by Physicist Eric Betzig and his team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. See the video and read more below.

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