Learning from robots that imitate animals

Strides in evolution and medicine thanks to robot animals

The cyber rodents have two wheels, a camera that can detect batteries and other robots, electrode teeth and an infrared port. Credit: OIST

The cyber rodents have two wheels, a camera that can detect batteries and other robots, electrode teeth and an infrared port. Credit: OIST

The animal kingdom is a seemingly infinite source of inspiration to inventors, from Velcro to medical adhesive derived from gecko feet. Some of the most fascinating advances in biomimicry are in the field of robotics, as scientists experiment with artificial organisms that face many of the same challenges as organic ones.

The latter innovations, made public within the past three weeks, are based on real animals. Each one is pushing the boundaries of how robotics is defined and what the field can accomplish.

Robot mice as evolutionary model

Robots seem like a poor choice of subject for studying how flesh-and-blood animals evolve. Nonetheless, Dr. Stefan Elfwing of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology has done just that, using mouse-like robots to model thousands of generations of natural selection in only a few days. The cyber rodents have two wheels, a camera that can detect batteries and other robots, electrode teeth and an infrared port.

Elfwing programmed the robots to mimic the two most important behaviors for animals in the wild, gathering food (recharging with their teeth at battery stations) and finding mates (exchanging data through their infrared ports). Some of them were “trackers” that actively sought mating partners, even at the expense of finding batteries, while others were “foragers” that devoted their time to finding food and would only mate if they happened upon a receptive partner.

A computer simulation extrapolated the results of their interactions over 1,000 generations. After about 70 simulations, Elfwing found that in the most successful populations, the proportion of trackers to foragers stabilized at 75 percent to 25 percent, respectively. These two strategies commonly arise in the same proportions within wild animal populations, meaning that robots may serve as valid models for future evolutionary research.

“The behavior exhibited by the two strategies,” he said in a statement, “may be a predecessor to the adoption of distinct genders.”

Biomimetic robot imitates hopping kangaroo

The latest invention from German automation-technology company Festo is a sleek, lightweight robot that imitates a kangaroo’s jump. The robot has two motors in its hips and one in the tail that works with a system of pneumatic cylinders that creates and releases tension in an elastic rubber “tendon.” The technology can send the robot almost a foot in the air with each hop. An intricate sensor control system coordinates the robot’s leg, tail and hips as its center of gravity shifts.

The tendon absorbs and recycles kinetic energy from each jump into the next. This feature could lead to greater energy efficiency in industrial automation, or other types of integrated dynamic systems.

The kangaroo joins Festo’s already impressive menagerie of bionic animals, including a robot elephant truck that learns tasks through “goal babbling,” like a human baby.

Squishy blue robot could have medical applications

A soft robot resembling a quadruped sea slug was unveiled last month by Brooklyn-based tech firm Super-Releaser. The Glaucus contains no hard moving parts, only a seamless silicon skin and two input lines. It moves with two hollow interior chambers that, when pressurized, bend the robot and propel it into a diagonal walking motion similar to that of a salamander.

The main structure is 3D printed as a mold, and the other materials are simply mixed and poured in. Creator Matthew Borgatti hopes that this method could prove useful in medical engineering, including for customizable orthotic cuffs and prosthetic sleeves that are currently in development at Super-Releaser.

Meanwhile, the design for the Glaucus is open source, so anyone with a 3D printer, some silicon and wax can make one for themselves.

Tasha Friedman
Tasha Friedman is a science and technology writer in New York City. She also reports on film, pop culture and social media.
Tasha Friedman
Tasha Friedman
Tags: Gadgets & Devices,Tech Culture,Technology