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Nature-inspired robots swim, crawl, and scuttle like animals

Through biomimetics, scientists teach machines some tricks that evolution perfected long ago.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / June 13, 2008

A Stickybot, inspired by the gecko, can climb almost any surface by using tiny hairs that emulate the lizard’s.

Mark Cutkosky


Cambridge, Mass.

When it comes to designing a new robot, some scientists are finding a visit to the zoo more helpful than hours spent at the drawing board. Rather than invent new ways for a robot to navigate a forest or crowded city street, they are copying how animals already do it.

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If the goal is to make robots capable of surviving any environment, then nature almost always provides a template, says Joseph Ayers, a professor of biology at Northeastern University in Boston. “Animals have evolved to operate in every environment,” he says.

The movement is part of an emerging field known as biomimetics, which takes designs from the natural world and applies them to everything from architecture to textiles.

In robotics, engineer-biologist teams are finding that automatons based on the same design principles as a lobster or a gecko can overcome many of the challenges that have kept robots from entering the real world. This new school of thought is changing many assumptions about how robots operate, by emphasizing simple mechanics that can replace complex software and sensors.

“We’re in the age that robots are moving out of the factory, out of rather structured environments, into a wider range of applications where the environment is less predictable, and there’s a higher premium on being both physically and operationally robust,” says Mark Cutkosky, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. He has invented cockroach- and gecko-inspired robots, among others. “One of the things that natural organisms do wonderfully well is cope with unexpected variations in the environment.”

While engineers have incorporated some natural design techniques over the centuries – thorn bushes, for example, are believed to have inspired barbed wire – humans have mostly overlooked natural solutions.

After thousands of years of human innovation, “there’s only a 12 percent overlap between the way humans have solved problems and the way the rest of the natural world has solved problems,” says Janine Benyus, cofounder of the Biomimicry Guild, a consulting firm in Helena, Mont. “[That] means that almost 90 percent of the time when you’re looking to the natural world for a solution, it’s going to be novel.”

Most of today’s robots work like machines, not animals. While advantageous in some respects, it’s an immense constraint in others.

“If you’re controlling a robot with a computer program, unless you’ve anticipated every possible situation it’s going to get into, it will eventually get into a situation where it has no escape strategy and it will be stuck. Animals never get stuck,” says Dr. Ayers. “What animals do is they wiggle and squirm [until they escape].”

Many autonomous robots use complex sensing networks to interact with their environment. They must sense everything that’s around them before making any movement, a serious computational task that animals do instinctively. Biomimetics, however, is beginning to provide robots with the ability to move without carefully plotting every step.