Robot sloth hanging from a wire in between trees

ROB FELT/GEORGIA TECH

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NGSS: Core Idea: LS1.A, LS4.C, ETS1.A

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Wild Robots

Meet five robots inspired by real animals

As you read, think about the ways that robots can help people and wildlife.

Sloths seem to move in slow motion. Snakes' flexible bodies can slither around without limbs. Dolphins have streamlined bodies that let them swim at high speeds. Adaptations like these help animals survive in all kinds of environments.

Many engineers look at animals to find inspiration for new types of robots. These robots copy the animals’ abilities. Sometimes the robots even look like animals!

Copying something from nature when developing technology is called biomimicry (bye-oh-MIM-ik-ree). Read on to learn how five robots copy the speed, size, and physical structures of living animals to do all kinds of jobs.

Sloths seem to move in slow motion. Snakes are super flexible. Dolphins can swim at high speeds. Adaptations like these help animals survive in all kinds of environments. 

Many engineers are inspired by animals. The animals give them ideas for new types of robots. These robots copy the animals’ abilities. Sometimes, the robots even look like the animals! Engineers copy nature to create new technology. This is called biomimicry (bye-oh-MIM-ik-ree). 

Read on to learn about five robots. They copy the speed, the size, and the shape of animals. That allows these bots to do all kinds of jobs.  

SlothBot

ROB FELT/GEORGIA TECH

Engineers test SlothBot at the Atlanta Botanical Garden in Georgia.

Sloths are among the world’s slowest animals. Moving slowly helps them save energy and hide from predators. Magnus Egerstedt, a roboticist, saw another use for this super-slow speed. He modeled a robot after sloths called SlothBot. Its slow movements allow it to gather data over long periods of time while using very little energy. “Sometimes, being slow is actually better,” says Egerstedt.

Engineers designed SlothBot to hang from a wire strung high in forests. A camera takes photos of animals and plants in the environment below. The robot uses sensors to measure temperature and humidity. When SlothBot needs to recharge, it creeps over to a sunny spot. Solar panels on it collect energy from the sun.

Sloths are some of the world’s slowest animals. Moving slowly helps them save energy. It also helps them hide from predators. Magnus Egerstedt is a roboticist. He saw another use for this super-slow speed. He created a robot called SlothBot. It also moves in slow motion. That allows it to gather data over long periods of time while using very little energy. “Sometimes, being slow is actually better,” says Egerstedt.

SlothBot hangs from a wire. It’s strung high in forests. The robot has a camera. It takes photos of animals and plants below. The robot has sensors. They measure temperature and water in the air. When SlothBot needs to recharge, it creeps to a sunny spot. Solar panels on it collect energy from the sun.

Lifelike Dolphin

EDGE INNOVATIONS

A rubberlike material called silicone covers the robot to imitate the smooth skin of a dolphin.

SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

At many aquariums, dolphins in captivity are trained to perform tricks. But recently, many people have argued that the animals suffer when kept in tanks. The company Edge Innovations has designed a robot, called Delle, to replace dolphins in marine parks. Delle looks and moves just like a real bottlenose dolphin!

To create Delle, engineers built a metal structure like a dolphin’s skeleton. They added motors to help it glide and dive. A cord connects the robot to electrical power. Engineers are adding artificial intelligence software to Delle so it can move around by itself. “We view our robots as ambassadors for the real animals out in the ocean,” says Walt Conti, the company’s chief executive.

Dolphins are kept by many aquariums. They’re trained to perform tricks. But some people do not like dolphins being kept in tanks. They argue that the animals suffer. The company Edge Innovations has designed a robot called Delle. It can replace dolphins in marine parks. Delle looks and moves like a real bottlenose dolphin! 

Engineers built a metal structure to create Delle. It’s like a dolphin’s skeleton. They added motors. These motors help the robot glide and dive. A cord connects the robot to electrical power. Engineers are adding artificial intelligence to Delle. The software would allow it to move by itself. “We view our robots as ambassadors for the real animals out in the ocean,” says Walt Conti. He’s the company’s chief executive.

Air-Powered Turtle

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SAN DIEGO

Air from the canister at the top supplies power. When the air pressure in the tubes at the bottom changes, the robot’s legs bend to walk.

ERIC ISSELEE/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Watch a turtle walk, and you’ll notice that the legs diagonal to each other step at the same time. Engineer Dylan Drotman was inspired to design a robot that moves in a similar way. Pairing the legs allows Drotman to use fewer parts than if the robot’s legs moved independently. The turtle-like bot doesn’t run on batteries. It’s powered and controlled by air!

The robot starts when Drotman opens an air canister on top of the bot. Air flows through valves and into plastic tubes in the legs. Changes in air pressure cause the valves to open and close, filling different legs with air. As air flows, alternating legs bend to walk. “It’s like an air-powered robot balloon animal,” says Drotman.

Others have built air-powered robots for prosthetic limbs and surgical devices. But unlike in Drotman’s bot, the air flow is often controlled by electronics. Drotman hopes to use his design to create air-powered robot toys.

Watch a turtle walk. Notice the legs diagonal to each other. They step at the same time. Dylan Drotman is an engineer. He designed a robot that moves in a similar way. Pairing the legs allows the robot to have fewer parts than if each leg moved on its own. The turtle-like bot doesn’t run on batteries. It’s powered by air! 

Drotman opens an air canister on top of the bot. That starts the robot. Air flows through valves. It then flows into plastic tubes in the legs. As the air pressure changes, the valves open and close. That fills different legs with air. Opposite legs bend to walk. “It’s like an air-powered robot balloon animal,” says Drotman.

Other people have built air-powered robots before. But the air flow in those robots is often controlled by electronics. Drotman hopes to use his design to create air-powered robot toys. 

Insect Drones

PROF. KEVIN CHEN, MIT

These mini drones can flap their wings hundreds of times per second, like bees and other insects. The actual wingspan of the drone is 12 inches.

These flying robots look like insects, but they won’t bite or sting. They’re drones designed to work in hard-to-reach spaces like the insides of big machines.

The robots weigh less than a paper clip! Like flying insects, the drones can hover and dart around. The newest version (above) can also withstand collisions with objects. “You can hit it when it’s flying, and it can recover,” says Kevin Chen, one of the engineers. “It can also do somersaults in the air.”

Chen hopes that one day the drones will be used as pollinators. Like bees, the drones could move pollen from one plant to another. Our food supply depends on insects pollinating crops. If insect populations seriously decline, pollinating drones might become important.

These flying robots look like insects. But they won’t bite or sting. They’re drones designed to work in hard-to-reach spaces like the insides of big machines.

The robots weigh less than a paper clip! The drones can hover and dart around like flying insects. The newest version (top right) is tough. “You can hit it when it’s flying, and it can recover,” says Kevin Chen, one of the engineers. “It can also do somersaults in the air.” 

Chen hopes one day the drones will be used as pollinators. Like bees, the drones could move pollen from one plant to another. Our food supply depends on insects pollinating crops. Drones might become important if these insects die off.

Robo Snake

HOWIE CHOSET/ROBOTICS INSTITUTE, CARNEGIE MELLON

This snakelike robot has a camera for users to see the bot’s surroundings. Each module, or unit, can rotate to make the snake bot move.

Snakes move by bending and coiling their long bodies. Engineers have been designing flexible robots that imitate this ability for decades. Roboticist Howie Choset is one of those engineers. His snake robots can move through environments in ways other robots can’t.

Choset’s robot design has multiple joints linked together. Each joint moves independently, allowing the robot to move its body like a real snake. The remote-controlled robot can slither over bumpy surfaces, fit through cramped areas, and wrap around poles or trees. A cable connects the robot to a battery. If the robot gets stuck, users can pull it out by tugging on its cable.

“Snake robots are good at moving through really tight spaces that machinery or people can’t access,” says Choset.

Snakes move by bending their long bodies. Engineers have been designing flexible robots that copy this ability for decades. Roboticist Howie Choset is one of those engineers. His snake robots can move in ways other robots can’t.

Choset’s robot design has many joints linked together. Each joint moves by itself. That allows the robot to slither like a real snake. The robot is remote-controlled. It can glide over bumpy surfaces. It can fit through cramped areas. And it can wrap around poles or trees. A cable connects the robot to a battery. A person can tug on the cable if the robot gets stuck. 

“Snake robots are good at moving through really tight spaces that machinery or people can’t access,” says Choset.

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