Friday, September 13, 2013

Insect's legs turn out to be the first mechanical gears found in a living creature AND similar to those on Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots

Image of gear-like structure

Popular Mechanics featured a story online yesterday that announced that U.K. scientists discovered the first biological gears on a living creature. The creature is a tiny insect is known as the issus, which lives on European climbing ivy and has an incredible ability to jump. As it turns out, the gear-like structures located at a joint on the insect's hind legs aid in that ability to jump. To jump quickly and powerfully, the issus relies on mechanics. The gears are thought to simplify the neuro-muscular feedback system that can slow down an attempt to move quickly. Because the gears are so well suited to transfer power properly, the insect's nervous system simply fires the signal to jump and doesn't need to bother with feedback. It shaves crucial milliseconds off what is often a life-or-death maneuver.

Now for MY discovery. I read the article with fascination. At the end, I realized the gears found on the insect's legs seemed familiar to me. I searched my brain and remembered where I had seen this arrangement before: the classic Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot Game! First, let's take a closer look at the insect's joint. As you can see in the animation, the two segmented gears meet at the junction of two body parts where one must rotate around the other. The gears engage to transfer a what I am guessing is a short linear force into a longer, faster rotational force.
Image of robot toy
Now take a look at the arm joint of this Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot. The elbow joint employs a series of gears to convert a short downward motion on the back of the robot into a quick jabbing motion. The assembly is a bit more complicated than the insect for it uses three gears rather than two. On the robot, there is a gear fused to the body at the shoulder. This gear meshes with a second one located on the inside of the robot's upper arm. This idler gear transfers motion to the final gear located at the end of the robot's lower arm. When the lever behind the robot is depressed, the upper arm is raised, causing it to rotate around the shoulder. This causes the intermediate gear to spin a bit. The advancing teeth engage with the ones on the lower arm, causing it to straighten.

My discovery may not be as ground-breaking as that of the U.K. researchers, but I will still gladly accept an honorary doctorate in engineering from any accredited college or university. Please use my contact form if you can bestow these laurels upon me. I would love to be referred to as 'Dr. North'.

If you want to learn more about biomechanics, check out these books on biomechanics.

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