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The Bionic Lobster

Joseph Ayers can picture a crustacean robot scuttling across the ocean floor, patrolling for pollution
By John Yemma, Boston Globe

Just before dawn, the invasion force approaches the landing beaches. Ahead of it, thousands of Joseph Ayers's robot lobsters have been loosed from low-flying aircraft and dropped into the shallows. Crawling across the sea floor, these biomimetic devices have been searching for mines and other hazards, clambering over rocks, fighting currents, blowing themselves up at the command of their remote controllers. A pod of robolamprey, meanwhile, has been probing the upper reaches of the water column for floating obstacles and traps, their wakeless, undulatory motion smoothly eluding detection from surface vessels.

Ayers, a professor at Northeastern University, is going to build these robots for the Office of Naval Research and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He is spinning this scenario over a big, messy tuna sandwich at the lunch counter of the Capitol Diner, in Lynn. A hearty man of 50 with a Jerry Garcia beard and shoulder-length hair, Ayers is no buzz-cut, tech-war nerd. In March, he received $3 million to develop these robots for the Pentagon, but he is betting that they will never really be used in warfare. As with many high-technology military projects, there will be civilian applications that would not occur without the pump-priming that a military mission provides.

Ayers, principal investigator in a project involving 22 scientists around the country, sees his autonomous robots collecting marine-science data and patrolling for pollution. These are the ulterior motives for developing the robots.

''We know more about the surface of the moon than about the ocean below 60 feet,'' Ayers says as we bomb back across the Nahant Causeway in a rattly van. ''A diver can't go down that deep for long. We need these vehicles to do the work for us.''

Robotic submersibles such as those pioneered by Robert Ballard, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, run in the $1 million range. Ayers's robolobsters should cost $300 each in full production. Platoons of them could be keeping tabs on water quality off Boston, someday helping protect the carbon-based life forms they emulate. In this sense, they are part of a big movement in engineering - biomimetics - that seeks to harvest the best design ideas from flora and fauna. In his book Cats' Paws and Catapults, biologist Steven Vogel, of Duke University, details the many ways scientists are trying to coax secrets from the natural world. Vogel says there are actually fairly few successful examples of this. Ayers thinks his project will be one of those.

''Animals have evolved to occupy any niche where we'd like to work, save outer space,'' Ayers says. ''They provide proven solutions to the problems of navigation, searching, and sensing.''

Ayers loves sea life, but not in the annoyingly pantheistic way of eco-religionists. A bit like Captain Nemo, he relishes the sea's abundance, diversity, ingenuity - and culinary possibilities. He devours his tuna sandwich while pattering with the short-order cook, Robert Fennell, who is also a state representative from Lynn. Ayers is trying to make sure that the lobsters he has so closely studied are not annihilated when the outfall pipe carrying Greater Boston's treated sewage into Massachusetts Bay goes into operation in the fall. Fennell and his colleagues at the State House may be able to help.

Ayers has cataloged how lobsters move through ocean surges. He has studied their muscles and nerves. He is reverse-engineering the stolid crustaceans. They may be klutzes on land, but they are more efficient in their milieu than we are in ours. We spend most of our energy counteracting gravity; lobsters are nearly neutrally buoyant in water, meaning most of their energy goes into forward travel.

A marine biologist and neuroscientist, Ayers runs Northeastern's Marine Science Center at East Point, in Nahant. In one long room is a collection of a dozen computers in which the marine scientists have cataloged the intricacies of lobster motion, using films of the animals walking on treadmills in glass tanks. Each movement of the legs, the cutter and crusher claws, the abdomen, and the tail is broken down into component parts and correlated with nerve signals.

Day after day, Northeastern students sit in a little hut outside, pumping squid juice into a saltwater tank and recording more aspects of lobster behavior. Eventually, the data will be loaded into a microprocessor, which will be packed into the robolobster. Ayers shows off an artificial muscle that uses a nickel-titanium alloy that returns to a preconfigured shape when hit with a small electrical jolt. These are key parts of the ambulatory and undulatory underwater robots that will emerge from here.

''Lobster and sea lamprey are both top-end predators,'' says Ayers, ''so their investigative behavior in looking for food is the same as a biomimetic robotic in looking for a mine.''

If an artificial lobster is the destination, Ayers is really enjoying the journey. He hands over a spiral-bound, self-published cookbook called Dr. Ayers Cooks With Cognac. He laughs. ''It's incentive-based research,'' he says. ''We eat the animals.'' To call the recipes in his book creative is to call the Atlantic wet. These are the work of a gastronome. His beaste d'homard recipe, for instance, is an elaborate journey through crustacean anatomy, adventure chemistry, and oenophilia.

Ayers slips into another mental zone when he talks about how he likes lobster best - with butter and a cool chardonnay. The remembered taste of the firm, succulent white meat plays across his face.

''I spent two hours eating one the other day,'' he says. ''I do love them.''

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