While man's ancestors have been roaming the planet for some six million years, homo sapiens only evolved about 200,000 years ago. During a climactic shift, modern man first began to climb the evolutionary ladder in Africa. With lighter skeletons and larger brains, we outpaced our ancestors rather quickly, based on our ability to adapt to our environment more efficiently.
The same holds true for other animals that survived alongside us. Hundreds of thousands of years allowed both of us to develop some elegant and highly efficient solutions to environmental challenges such as locomotion, flight and dexterity. We are now taking some of nature's tricks and applying them to our own creations.
Scientists have been researching and using animals as models to replicate and build robots for some time. For example, the wings of hummingbirds, the spines of snakes and the tongues of chameleons are all body parts researchers have used to build some of this century's notable robots.
While this might sound like reverse engineering, in actuality, animals -- even simplistic ones -- interact with nature beautifully. They are models of "purpose-built" functionality. Through evolution, they have been optimized to do so. DNA over time seems to improve upon the best of us, and eliminate that which is less efficient.
For that reason, "any conversation about a perfect automoton is also a conversation about splicing animals to create something new and different and better," noted Neel V. Patel in a feature titled, The Future Robot Is a Mythological Animal.
So, today's blog will provide you with an overview of a few of our recent robots that have borrowed from nature in some unique ways.
"Spot" took his first walk on the planet as Big Dog back in 2005 -- hence the canine appearance [minus the head]. Originally conceived and developed by Boston Dynamics, the firm has built a veritable stable of four-legged robots, over the course of the last decade.
Their first product was a robotic pack-horse for the military that borrowed the quadrupedal locomotion of animals to traverse over terrain too rugged for conventional vehicles.
The US Army refined this artificial intelligence first as the "Spot," and then as the "SpotMini." The latter version was touted as a domestic helper, but still under enhancements, later iterations are tending to suggest a more consumer-focused purpose.
Some animal-inspired robots come from search and rescue missions. However, the snake robot built by Carnegie Melon University researchers is one of the first to be actually tested in a real-life disaster.
At the university, a team of roboticists helped the Mexican Red Cross workers search collapsed buildings for survivors after the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that hit Mexico City this past September. The identifiable snake-design’s small diameter allows this mechanism to move in almost any direction. This virtually makes the robot ideal for accessing tight spaces, similar to a snake.
While the device also features a camera on the front, the researchers noted that this experience helped them realize they should have added a microphone to listen for people trapped under the rubble — an enhancement which is currently being developed.
Festo has launched a series of animal-inspired machines as well, from a mechanical kangaroo to robotic butterflies. Its latest design, similar to Carnegie Melon University’s snake creation is a gripping mechanism, this time based on an octopus’s fastener-like tentacle.
The pneumatically-enabled device was created with soft silicone featuring rows of suction cups on its inner edge. This allows for compressed air to wrap around a wide variety of differently shaped objects, just like its natural counterpart. Added to this make-up is a vacuum that can grip any object securely. Since the material is pliable, both the Gripper and humans can work in collaboration to function as a team.
These three are examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Robots patterned after real-life animals are flooding the market, from small creations similar to flies and ants to larger creatures such as ostriches. Why replicate ostriches you ask? Well . . . while humans boast a good amount of flexibility with their legs, ostriches have much more stable joints allowing them to be more energy efficient with their two high-powered legs. Perhaps over time, homo sapiens' DNA will eventually pattern ourselves after this nifty natural design and functionality.
Stay tuned to other such animal-like robots I will be reporting on in the weeks and months ahead.