What animals can teach us about controlling robots
Humans aren’t the only game in town when it comes to robotics. In the past few years, researchers have been using animals to control and influence robots. From virtual reality to brain-computer interfaces, animals and robots are the best combination since graphene and molybdenite.
In the past, ExtremeTech has covered everything from robot bat wings to rat bullies to DARPA’s BigDog, but this is a different take on the idea. Videos of animal-influenced robots may seem like a novelty, but looking at these videos made me consider how much engineers can gain from observing different forms of life controlling robots, some of which have distinct advantages over human subjects.
Monkey maneuvers robotic arm with its brain
Something like the BirdBuggy may seem a little silly, but this research — aimed at improving the lives of the physically disabled — being performed at Duke is the perfect example of the life-changing nature of animal-robotic hybrids. This video shows a monkey using a robotic arm to navigate 3D space and acquire a snack just by thinking about it. Research like this is vital for the future of direct brain-computer interfaces, and who doesn’t want to live in a world where we can control the environment with our thoughts?
Climbing robots modeled after the unique sticky feet of geckos
Geckos are incredible climbers thanks to millions of tiny hairs on the bottom of their feet called setae. When used together, all of the setae on a single gecko are estimated to be able to cary between 200 and 300 pounds. Impressive, right? Geckos take advantage of a special molecular attraction called the Van der Waals force. Now, researchers are using synthetic hairs to take advantage of this phenomenon. By emulating the hairs on gecko feet with tiny rubber-based pads, this robot can climb right up a wall with little difficulty. The pads are completely dry, reusable, and even work in a vacuum. As this tech matures, expect to see it being used for everything from weekend entertainment to spacecraft maintenance.
Silkmoth steers a small robot
This is a video of a robot being steered by a moth. Yes, a tiny male silkmoth is completely in control of this contraption. Just last month, our own Sebastian Anthony wrote up this story in detail. At the University of Tokyo, researchers were able to design a system that allowed the moth to steer to a designated area inside of a wind tunnel. By studying how the moth steers, the researchers can improve the way autonomous robots navigate.
Hummingbirds inspire tiny flying robot to reach small spaces
At Carnegie Mellon University, engineering students are taking direct inspiration from bats and hummingbirds. The bat-based robot leaps high into the air, and glides to its location. The tiny hummingbird robot rapidly flaps its minuscule wings to emulate the hovering of a real hummingbird. When it comes to exploring difficult environments like caves, tombs, and cliffs, these designs can handle situations where no human could dream of reaching.
Fly controls robot by interacting with virtual reality
Researchers at ETH Zurich’s Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems attached a fly to a tether, and placed it right in front of a screen. The wing motions of the fly are translated directly into movement of a tiny robot in an obstacle course. As the fly reacts to what it sees, the robot is steered through without a hitch. The purpose of this study is to see how fruit flies steer and maneuver with their wings so that engineers can develop better flying robots. Drones are quite popular these days, so this tiny fly’s life’s work will undoubtedly be put to good use.
Roach mechanics inform robotic design
Roaches are outstandingly nimble, but researchers at the University of Michigan wanted to know why. Is it the mechanics of their legs and body, or is it a super-quick response from their central nervous system? After extensively studying the way roaches respond to external force, it turns out that the resilience we see is thanks to their built-in suspension system. From there, the engineers were able to extrapolate that it’s better to build robots with a focus on improving passive mechanical systems instead of actively trying to respond to environmental obstacles. It’s not just about making better robots, though. These same ideas can be used to make safe and more efficient prosthetics for human beings.
Forget bio-mimicry, this is bio-mastery
If mimicking animals in robot design is good, taking cues directly from animal-driven data is even better. As we apply what we’re learning from this research, we’re bound to get better robotics and smarter simulated intelligence. Instead of wasting time building all of this from scratch, harnessing billions of years of evolution to drive better robotics is one of the smartest shortcuts engineers can take. Natural selection can do the heavy lifting for us.
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