As we attempt to create machines that make their way through the world like living creatures, biology has become a major source of inspiration. The most exciting robots emerging from research labs and universities today have one thing in common: they move like animals. Here are seven ways future robots will harness the powers of the animal kingdom.
1. THEY’LL BE UNCRUSHABLE, LIKE A COCKROACH.
Cockroaches are notoriously hard to get rid of, in part because they can flatten themselves to a fifth of their normal size and withstand up to 900 times their body weight while still moving forward. They’re practically immune to squishing. Researchers based in Berkeley, California are prototyping cockroach-inspired robots to one day deploy to disaster situations. These machines will be able to burrow into rubble and locate survivors.
2. THEY’LL BE FLEXIBLE, LIKE AN OCTOPUS’S TENTACLES.
Octopus arms are unique in that they can go from floppy to inflexible in a moment—no bones required. Surgeons hope to replicate this shape-shifting to create better tools for sensitive operations. These octopus arm-inspired tools would be able to navigate around organs and through narrow openings to reach surgical sites.
3. THEY’LL BE ABLE TO CHANGE COLOR LIKE CHAMELEONS.
Engineers are creating robots that can blend in with the colors around them, like chameleons or octopuses. Light sensors in these devices analyze the colors in the background and translate the pattern to a plasma display. While the technology only works for certain colors right now, in the future it might provide high-tech camouflage to hide robots in plain sight.
4. THEY’LL BE ABLE TO HANDLE ANY TERRAIN, LIKE LIZARDS.
One of the things keeping robots from aiding us on battlefields, in disaster zones, and in space is their inability to keep their footing in less-than-perfect terrain. Researchers are turning to animals to help build better robots that can scramble across rocks, sand, and any other obstacles in their way. Lizards, for instance, have long feet and toes that keep them from sinking into sand, giving them a major speed advantage in soft terrain. Cockroaches can crawl over just about anything. Birds can clear tall objects. Recent robotics research has focused on all these creatures as models for the ultra-agile machines of the future.
5. THEY’LL BE ABLE TO WORK TOGETHER LIKE TERMITES.
Termites don’t have to talk about their construction projects; they just know what little piece they should be working on. This makes them ideal models for the autonomous construction ‘bots of the future. Engineers are building groups of robots that can work collectively, like a swarm of insects or a school of fish, to transport large objects and build structures. In the future, they may be able to build housing, stack sandbags along coastlines prone to flooding, or pollinate entire fields with minimal interference from humans.
6. THEY’LL BE ABLE TO SEE LIKE INSECTS.
Insect eyes are super-sensitive to movement and light, although they don’t see the world in very high resolution. Though a dragonfly’s brain is only the size of a grain of rice, it can fly at speeds of up to 37 miles per hour and captures prey with a 97 percent success rate. Mimicking these visual systems can make aerial robots less apt to run into obstacles or each other, while improving tracking capabilities.
7. THEY’LL BE ABLE TO SWIM LIKE STINGRAYS.
Stingrays’ flapping swimming motions create vortices around them, pushing the animals through the water with relatively little exertion. New York-based engineers studying the physics of swimming rays suggest that imitating their motions could create more agile, efficient underwater robots.
Scientists have long modeled machines after living things. Click here to see how biology has helped make the impossible possible.