By definition, engineering is the science that designs and creates engines and mechanisms. Many people think about it as a discipline that analyzes nature-inspired concepts and reproduces them in different applications. But what if we think of it the opposite way? What if it wasn’t the understanding of nature that pre-exists to engineering? What if it was engineering itself that help us understand nature?
In July 2016, researchers from Georgia Tech, CMU and Clemson university created MuddyBot: a robot that has two limbs and a tail with the ability to move on sand.
Well, in the last few years, we’ve seen nothing but robots: robots everywhere, in every university, every lab, every club… and unfortunately, these robots were not always of any particular use, just a trend or a hobby. Why does MuddyBot exist? Why do we need a robot that can move on sand? What makes Georgia Tech so proud of this banal robot to post it on its website?
In my opinion, the robot itself (the object) is simply a result of a long, challenging yet groundbreaking process called engineering. In fact, the interesting thing about the project is not that it resulted in a machine; but more all the previously blind paths the making of the robot opened.
“Robot Helps Study How First Land Animals Moved 360 Million Years Ago.”
Yes, MuddyBot helped providing new insights on a very important evolutionary question: how did vertebrates made the transition from water to land? Engineering was able to answer something fossils studies didn’t succeed to do.
In fact, when engineers try to reproduce a model, they first observe it, analyze it and divide an action in many smaller ones. They do so to have a better understanding of a complex model but also to be able to communicate it with a computer: a dumb machine that only understands 1s and 0s. Then, the interesting thing is, when someone divides a complex task into smaller ones, he understands the importance of each one.
“With the robot, we are able to simplify the complexity of the mudskipper and by varying the parameters, understand the physical mechanisms of what was happening.”
Says one of the researchers.
Hence, in order to get a robot that does the same as the mudskippers, engineers had to split tasks in a way that actually made them understand the importance of each organ involved in mudskippers ‘ move to land and especially, the importance of the tail.
Of course the robot can now be used as a model if we literally want mobility on the sand. MuddyBot do not only answers an evolutionary question, it can help improve robotics involved in moving sand in search and rescue missions. Yet, the fascinating part is that it explained a yet unresolved mystery.
To conclude with, this is why I chose engineering and computer engineering in particular. I trust it teaches you how to observe nature and structure information in a way you can master any process or phenomenon.