Salamanders come in many shapes and sizes:
Video posted by tomb0171 on March 12, 2016
The video above represents a tiny sampling of the variety of salamanders that exist in nature. Wikipedia defines salamanders as "...a group of amphibians typically characterized by a lizard-like appearance, with slender bodies, blunt snouts, short limbs projecting at right angles to the body, and the presence of a tail in both larvae and adults. All present-day salamander families are grouped together under the scientific name Urodela." Generally salamanders have four toes on their front legs and five on the rear--though sometimes there are less. They are also capable of regenerating lost limbs.
So why would scientists want to create a robotic salamander? Before we answer that question, let's meet Pleurobot.
Video posted by Igor Gabrielan on October 14, 2014
Okay... first, let me state that that thing is creepy! Its like a zombie/ghost/skeleton monster. The way it moves and seems to sniff the air gives me the shivers!
Now that my little rant is over, I also must confess that Pleurobot is cool! And while it resembles a robot dinosaur toy that you buy for your kids, but really bought for yourself so you could play with it (shut up; you know you did), this sucker is much more detailed and has some serious research potential.
Designed by a team led by biorobot specialist Auke Ijespeert, Pleurobot is named after the salamander species Pleurodeles waltl. While designing the robot, it was decided to minimize the number of segments requiring motorization. The number of vertebrae was reduced from 40 to 27, with the number of moveable joints reduced accordingly. As such, an accurate replication of a salamander's moving patterns could be incorporated into the design.
The immediate goal: learning more about spinal cord stimulation. But there are other goals involving biorobotics--essentially the concept of designing robots that can function efficiently in harsh terrain. This has been something of a holy grail in robotics, as robots tend to fall... and not get up. To have a self-sufficient robot that could navigate hazardous terrain--such as the barren (or maybe not so barren) landscape of Mars--and be capable of standing back up after taking a tumble, is something special.
This video from the amazing TED Talks, features Auke Ijespeert detailing this amazing robot and providing many details concerning why a salamander was chosen as the launching point for this project:
Video posted by TED on February 18, 2016
As you can see, this study will go beyond Pleurobot. It will be truly interesting to see the ramifications of these creations in so many fields: medical, exploratory, industrial... and many more. With luck, maybe one day we'll end out with a robot like AMEE from Red Planet... only without the damaged "kill everyone" circuit. While its not a salamander, the idea is basically the same:
Video posted by Ercan Guney on August 2, 2015
Yeah... not killing everyone is good.
If you are interested in learning more about biorobotics, check out this anthology, Biorobotics, edited by Barbara Webb and Thomas R. Consi.