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Robotic Zoo: Ten animal-inspired robots

Robotic Zoo: Ten animal-inspired robots

Posting in Design

What animals are the source of inspiration for modern robotic development?

Animals, from snakes or dogs to butterflies, remain a constant source of inspiration for robotics researchers.

The stereotype of heavy-duty robots working in manufacturing is no longer the sole use for robots. Instead, developers across the world are researching and creating machines for a variety of tasks, from rescue missions to covert operations, flight and assisting humans in different ways.

If the focus is no longer on heavy-duty performance machines, then inspiration for development has to come from somewhere other than manufacturing. Often, nature becomes the source of that inspiration.

What animals have been used previously to help researchers in robotic design?

1.) Dog: Japan builds Kinect-powered robotic guide dog. Using Microsoft's Xbox 360 Kinect technology, Japanese robot maker NSK is developing a robotic dog designed to help the visually impaired. Acting as a guide dog, the machine moves on four wheels, the Kinect peripheral allowing the robot to sense the world around it. Stairs involved? 3D-sensing cameras recognize the height of the stairs and scales them accordingly.

2.) Snake: Rescue robots that mimic snake movement. Hamid Marvi, a graduate of mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, is taking a closer look at a snake's use of friction in order to create more effective 'rescue' robot designs. Based on these ideas, Marvi and his team have created 'Scalybot' -- a robot inspired by snakes in order to climb inclined planes. By designing ‘teeth’ that run across the bottom of its body, the teeth can rise or fall in order to navigate a plane -- acting like snake scales by doing so.

3.) Bird: 'SmartBird' modeled on the herring gull. Festo have unveiled 'SmartBird', an energy-efficient robot that weighs just 500 grams and is able to take off, fly and land though remote control. The design is based on the body and contortions of a herring gull.

4.) Grasshopper: Jollbot rolls, collapses, jumps, won't mutate and attack Chicago. PhD student Rhodri Armour at the University of Bath has created a grasshopper-based machine that can handle and navigate different kinds of terrain. The Jollbot can jump up to a half meter in the air to avoid obstacles, and a spherical 'cage' shape allows it to roll in any direction.

5.) Octopus: 'Robot tentacle' - the first stage of a $13m undersea rescue octopus. As part of a project to create a synthetic device to rescue those underwater, Italian scientists have created a working robotic 'tentacle' that can move in tight spaces, and the soft limb even sports suckers.

6.) Fish: They can be just as convincing as the real thing. Researchers at NYU Polytechnic University are involved in a project that 'tricks' live fish in to following a synthetic sea creature. In order to mimic a live animal as closely as possible, researchers Stefano Marras and Maurizio Porfiri built their machine to replicate tail movements.

7.) Insects: Small, speedy robots zip, roll and swarm through the air. At the TED2012 conference, which ended March 2, small flying robots that were able to flip, swarm and make music made a memorable appearance. University of Pennsylvania professor Vijay Kumar developed the robots with students at Penn's General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab.

8.) Snake: Origami robots - Just paper and air. A team of Harvard researchers have created machines that are based on the properties of paper, and are able to run on nothing but air. These robots, based on the flexibility of snakes, have been molded from paper and silicon rubber, and have been created with the express purpose of completing tasks that ‘hard’ robots cannot.

9.) Butterflies: Analyzing motion for next generation micro robots. Researchers at John Hopkins University are studying the aerial movement of painted lady butterflies in an attempt to further refine small robotic engineering. Tiras Lin, an Undergraduate engineer at the university, is part of a team that are hoping to improve the next generation of insect-sized robots with flying capability by trying to unravel the secrets of insect flight and maneuverability.

10.) Shrew: A robot that uses whiskers to get around. Instead of using technology such as Microsoft's Xbox 360 Kinect to 'see' the world, or even use a sense of smell, some, such as the 'Shrewbot', use whiskers to touch nearby objects for navigation purposes.

Image credit: Jason Carter

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure