Evolution through engineering and art

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With the exception of architecture, it’s very rare for engineering disciplines and art to be mentioned in the same breath. Dutch artist Theo Jansen, however, has used physics to create kinetic sculptures that have become world famous.

Strandbeest1Jansen’s sculptures, called Strandbeest, appear to walk and are able to move on their own by virtue of wind power and kinetic energy. Intended to be a fusion of art and engineering, the Strandbeest have evolved as technology has evolved. The latest generations of the sculptures have even been endowed with artificial intelligence in order to avoid obstacles.

“The walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds,” Jansen has said. “[This project] is about making new forms of life. I want to put these forms of life on the beaches. And they should survive over there, on their own, in the future. Learning to live on their own - and it'll take couple of more years to let them walk on their own.”

Strandbeest2Constructed from PVC piping, wood, and fabric air foils, the Strandbeest are based on genetic algorithms and are being advanced through the use evolutionary computation techniques. The wind drives them, and the latest “family” are able to store the wind. In addition to being able to walk in the absence of wind as a result, some Strandbeest are able to detect once they have entered water and walk away from it, and one model is even capable of anchoring itself to the earth if it senses a storm approaching.

Jansen says that the proportion of the tubes in the animals is very important to enable them to walk. “There are 11 numbers, which I call The 11 Holy Numbers. These are the distances of the tubes which make it walk that way. In fact, it's a new invention of the wheel. It works the same as a wheel. The axis of a wheel stays on the same level, and this hip is staying on the same level as well. In fact, this is better than a wheel, because when you try to drive your bicycle on the beach, you will notice it's very hard to do. And the feet just step over the sand, and the wheel has to touch every piece of the ground in-between. So 5000 years after the invention of the wheel, we have a new wheel,” he says in a video explaining the mechanics of his creations.

The Strandbeest are not Jansen’s first foray into the blending of art and engineering. After leaving his studies in physics in the 70s, he used his skills to create an airship “UFO” and a painting machine as artistic projects. The painting machine is essentially an automated graffiti machine.

Jansen is working on the seventh generation of Strandbeest – some of which are able to carry passengers. In the future, the Dutch artist expects his creations to become more and more anatomically sophisticated, developing develop muscles, a nervous system, and some kind of brain allowing them to take complex decisions. And some day, he hopes his beach creatures won't need him to keep on evolving as he has incorporated the ability for them to transmit their DNA autonomously to following generations into their ecosystem.

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Crown Publications, one of South Africa’s largest business-to-business publishing houses, came into existence in 1986. Since then, the company has grown from producing a single magazine, Electricity SA (renamed Electricity+Control), to publishing six monthly magazines, three quarterlies, and a number of engineering handbooks.