Biomimicry has been at the heart of robotics before the term ‘biomimicry’ was even coined. An ‘Android’ is a mechanical device made to resemble, and function like, a human. The term has been a sci-fi staple for decades, though its first appearance was in 1727.
Of course now the concept is so widely accepted that Michael bay has just started his second Transformers trilogy, and farmers in China are leaving the fields because it’s more profitable to make giant robot sculptures out of old tractors.
The field of biomimetic animal robots is in many ways even more developed than that of humans, and progressing all the time. While I’m continually thrilled by all this design and technology, as a generation raised on The Borg and Terminator films, I can never fully relax when researching this topic. Remember, we’re only ever one AI paradox away from the Matrix.
Running Wild Cat
Boston Dynamics are pretty high up in the biomimicry robots world. While most of the other examples are academic, research led projects, Boston Dynamics is a DARPA affiliated company, recently bought by google, with its products either being implicitly or explicitly linked to military application.Their most recent of many projects, Wild Cat is all about speed. The Wild Cat is a direct evolution of the Cheetah Project, though this one is out of the lab and in the wild. Free standing on open ground this beast hits 19 mph (30 kmph), though in a tethered test the Cheetah chassis is the fastest legged robot in the world, hitting 29 mph (46.6 kmph).
This insect sized robotic fly, developed by Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory in partnership with the Wyss Institute, is minuscule. Just look at the thing. That’s hardly bigger than a real bee.The robot is part of a larger research project called ‘Robobees‘. This particular device is obviously set to mimic the delicate, slightly wobbly flight of our tiny, furry, pollinating friends. The larger project though is looking at the brain and colony, as well as the body of the individual. Though in very early stages, this in the end could have a myriad of applications from 3d printing and construction to micro surveillance.
Castle Building Termites
Termites are a personal favorite, and this swarm robot demonstrates not how their building works, but how their building process works. Though termites can build grand, finely tuned structures, no individual termite is ever told “put that mud there now”. The tiny insect operates entirely independently. You’ll never see a termite foreman in a hard hat having a go at a lazy worker. They just do it.
This is the crux of the TERMES project, another example from Harvard. As the video demonstrates, if a robot can sense what’s going on around them, even relatively cheaply produced machines can work intelligently and successfully. A robot modeled on this could have a myriad of applications, from arranging sand-bags in a flood to building colonies on Mars.
Dino-mimicry. It’s finally a thing. Forget mimicking living animals. Lets raid the fossil record. This bi-pedal robot gets up to 28 mph (46 kmph) in tethered tests, just a shade off Wild Cat.Though the fascinating thing about this project by KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) is not the speed, but the balance. As the video below shows, this robot uses “active tail stabilisation” to deal with oncoming obstacles at high-speed. Even more impressive is that it was largely built with off the shelf parts!
Students and researchers at Viginia Tech have looked to the sea for their biomimetic inspiration. This robot, named ‘Cryo’ is modeled after Cyanea capillata, the ‘lion’s mane’ jellyfish.Jellyfish are surprising creatures. Apart from looking like a balloon attached to candy floss that can kill you, these soft-bodied animals are actually remarkably efficient swimmers. The video below mentions that the end application of this product is extremely extended sea based missions, so when you put two and two together you can see why they went for a jelly fish and not say.. a sailfish. The explicit nature of the missions is very hazily defined though. Will they be monitoring ocean currents, or sea-based hunter-killer drone swarms?
Five biomimetic robots, from smart to scary. Sure for now it’s all sunshine and leaping over blocks on treadmills, but just like all sci-fi, things will soon go too far. Jellyfish and flying insects scouting out our every move. Will you get run down in the open by the google Wild Cat, or will the agile Robo-raptor take you out in the derelict streets, with buildings warped by out of control Termite swarms? At least while we’re in control we can have Roomba knife fights…