I was rummaging through my electronic library today and came across a paper had I read over and over again in 1999 as a new graduate student with a nearly insatiable appetite. I am now realizing that it was right around the time this paper was published, that the seed of biomimetics was planted in my head. This article is written by a then faculty member at UC Berkeley (now at Cal Tech), by the name of Michael Dickinson. Even then, as a fairly new professor, it was clear that Dickinson was a rapidly rising star — one with amazing vision and a force to contend with. As the head of a fly neurobiology and flight lab, he was a pioneer in understanding the mechanisms of fly flight using self-created contraptions such as RoboFly and Fly-O-Rama, pictured above. I hope you enjoy and are inspired by this article as much as I was.
As an undergraduate at Berkeley, I found myself dumbfounded and awestruck by the awesome adhesive powers of gecko toepads. For months, I poured hour after hour into removing single toe pad hairs (setae), sticking them to a filed down insect pin, and pressing them against a thin filament of silver wire. I had already stuck a dead gecko on a smooth door and seen it dangling by a single toe with a heavy metal stapler tied to its hips, so I knew there was something spectacular about its adhesive powers (Note: no animals were injured or tormented to discover this!). Yet, each time I pressed a seta to the wire, absolutely nothing would happen. It took countless late night hours of pushing setae to wires with (an arguably) stupidly optimistic outlook, until suddenly, the seta began to stick!
Much of this motivation and inspiration for continuing onwards in this quest was in no small part due to a particularly spectacular advisor, Dr. Robert Full. In the hopes of having him also inspire all of you with his big dreams and creativity, I’ve posted one of his TED conference talks below. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do!