A major area of robot research and development comes under the category of biomimetics, or biomimicry, which looks to nature for inspiration. Some robots resemble different kinds of animals. For example, Boston Dynamics' Cheetah has broken legged-robot speed records at 18mph. (It can't match a real cheetah's 70mph.) The company is well known for its pioneering development of robots that use motions based on animals to run and maneuver, such as the BigDog.
Many robots modeled after animals are developed for military and first-responder applications. They can be based on insects, like the University of California, Berkeley's OctoROACH; worms, like MIT's Inchworm; and even jellyfish, like Virginia Tech's Robojelly. Many have similar applications, and some have similar funding sources. They are designed for reconnaissance, surveillance, and the ability to go where humans can't -- sometimes in tiny spaces, sometimes in dangerous territory, and sometimes in rugged or unusual terrain.
Click on the photo below to see a slideshow of 10 of these creepy-crawly robots.
The Multi-Appendage Robotic System (MARS) from Virginia Tech's Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory looks like a giant spider with six legs instead of eight. Fabricated out of carbon fiber and aluminum, the robot's legs are spaced axi-symmetrically around its body, which lets it walk omni-directionally. Each leg uses a proximal joint with two degrees of freedom and a distal joint with one degree of freedom for added strength and rigidity. The goal is to develop a walking gait system for negotiating terrain with variations in height. The system is based on simplified biological neuron networks, arranged in subnetworks and subsystems to support the operation of another neural network: a central pattern generator (CPG) that generates gait patterns based on feedback from all supporting systems. (Source: Virginia Polytechnic and State University)
Charles, I think that while the engineers are aiming robojelly at a particular function, in reality that function could be done by other developments. However, the "cool-factor" comes from the materials being used and the self refueling aspects. At the end of day, developments like this may very well be a proof of concept with a possible application and the resulting technologies can be broken apart and used elsewhere.
In college I interviewed for a job in the engineering lab with a team that was big into developing nureal networks and it was really neat to see what they were doing, creating software that an solve problems and learn. That was a few years ago and I can't even imagine all of the progress they have made.
I think this is one of those areas where the final application may not be known by the team working on the initial concept. It reminds of when I was a kid and building with Legos. My mom would ask what I was buiilding and I'd answer, "I don't know yet." It'll be neat to see how some of these robots can be used for the betterment of humanity.
Beth, I must say that you get to write about the coolest things. Whether these designs are ultimately practical or not, I think it's good for the collective knowledge base of mankind to understand how biological systems work, by attempting to imitate them. In essence humans are participating in a sort of "evolution" by developing various physical and mechanical systems which will eventually be culled out or advanced based on their ability to survive the environments they are subject to (including economic environments!). I can't wait to see what's next.
What a great, great slideshow. Admittedly, I have trouble imagining some of applications for these robots. In particular, I'm wondering: Do we know what the civilian applications for the Robojelly, Ann?
Jim, I think you've got a very important point there. I had a similar reaction to the Virginia Tech MARS robot. I think a great deal of what we're seeing in robot design, especially some of the weirder military and biomimicry types, is from the fertile imaginations of sci-fi fans, whether their inspiration comes from the old pulp days, or 50s TV serials (like I grew up on), or later movies. Now that (good quality) CGI is practically indistinguishable from reality in movies, we'll probably see even more.
Beth, I also noticed that most of these were from university labs and R&D. Although several of them, like Boston Dynamics's machines, are funded by the military, some others appear to be highly theoretical, like a few examples from Virginia Tech.
Clearly, Nature is one of the biggest inspirations for technology development, but I contend that there is also a very influential Middle-Man to inspiration– that being Science-Fiction.I say middle-man, because of course, most science-fiction took its inspiration from natural observations, as well.Point being, the title slide image for this article (Virginia Tech's MARS Spider) immediately hit me as one of the spider robots in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report starring Tom Cruise.Remember the scene after he had is eyeballs transplanted, and was being chased by spider-bot tracking drones, as he hid underwater in a bathtub-? That scene always ran chills down my spine, contemplating future tech-apps, and this article instantly gave me the same recall!
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