Biomechanics is a fascinating field of study which involves researching the structure and function of biological systems through mechanics. Through building robots inspired by nature not only can we learn more about how we and other animals work in terms of movement, evolution, and unique capabilities, we can also use what we learn to solve a multitude of complex engineering problems biomimetically.
We spoke to John Hutchinson, Professor of Evolutionary Biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College and he told us:
“Drawing inspiration from animals for robotic design can be a wise engineering design move because animals have spent millions of years adapting to satisfy some of the same constraints that robots must, such as moving efficiently to running fast without falling down. So animals have often evolved clever, even elegantly simple, solutions that can be copied to robots.”
That’s why we see so many weird and wonderful robotic animals out there; we’re learning from them and nature. Here are some of our favourites examples of this in action:
7. Jollbot Grasshopper
Jollbot is the creation of Rhodri Armour, a PhD student from the University of Bath. In an effort to design a robot that could effectively manoeuvre uneven land, Armour found that robots with legs were complex and expensive to build and control, whilst wheeled robots offered balance but faced limitations when it came to obstacle heights.
His robotic design solution was inspired by the ‘pause and leap’ movements of the grasshopper which is clear to see in the way the robot squashes its spherical shape to store energy and releases it when ready to jump to incredible heights. The hope is that with its ability to jump over obstacles and roll smoothly over rough terrain, the Jollbot could be used in space exploration or even something as simple as land survey work here on Earth.
Festo’s BionicKangaroo isn’t just impressive from an engineering perspective, it’s kind of adorable too. This robot was built to specifically study the way a kangaroo hops in order to find more energy-efficient ways for robots to move. Like a real kangaroo, this Festo creation is able to recover energy mid-jump and store it in order to use it for the next jump.
Before it jumps the BionicKangaroo’s elastic tendon is pneumatically pre-tensioned. The robot shifts its centre of gravity and leans forward and as soon as the correct angle for jumping is achieved the pneumatic cylinders release the energy from the tensed tendon and the robot takes off. When the robot lands, the elastic tendon immediately tenses again, converting the kinetic energy from the previous jump into potential energy to be used in the next jump.
Festo’s hope is that they’ve found a good jumping point from which to study the way automation technology of the future could recover, store, and efficiently reuse energy, for example when it comes to recovering heat from compressors.
Aside from the fact that its name kind of sounds like an 80’s cartoon character, Robofish are clever creations from Kristi Morgansen of the University of Washington who was inspired by the movements and communication methods of actual schools of fish. Morgansen built 3 robotic fish that are able to communicate with one another underwater using low-frequency sonar pulses to provide the building blocks for coordinated group movement of robots and help develop robotic systems to be used to explore remote parts of the ocean.
Underwater robots of course don’t require oxygen but Morgansen said a drawback in using them was that they still had to come up to the surface to communicate. Because they’re able to communicate like real schools of fish, her robots wouldn’t need to surface until they’d completed their task meaning they could cooperatively track moving underwater targets such as schools of fish or plumes of pollution. They could even allow us to explore more dangerous parts of the ocean where surfacing wouldn’t be possible. They also use fins like real fish rather than propellers making them easier to move and creating less drag.
Initial reaction? Gross. But the RoachBot developed by UC Berkeley has some incredible uses inspired by the biology of these creepy crawlies. With its streamlined and arched round shell and 6 scurrying legs, the robotic cockroach is able to move quickly through tight spaces and over cluttered terrain with an ease that bulkier robots or humans couldn’t. It’s mostly down to its roach-inspired shell but researchers think the RoachBot could be extremely useful when it comes to aiding emergency services in search-and-rescue missions.
MIT’s cheetah robot has been designed to replicate the way a cheetah is able to move quickly, bounding with ease over obstacles in its path without breaking its stride to further develop the dynamic movement of four-legged robots and their object detection abilities. MIT’s cheetah bot was tested on a treadmill and an indoor track where it was able to successfully jump over obstacles of up to 18 inches (which is more than half of the robot’s height) while maintaining an average running speed of 5 miles per hour, proving the team were able to effectively manage the robot’s balance and energy even when dealing with the impact from landing.
Using an onboard LIDAR the team were also able to develop a three-part algorithm for the robot to firstly detect an obstacle and estimate its size and distance, secondly to adjust its approach to prepare to jump, and finally to achieve the correct jump trajectory. With all of this technology onboard the cheetah itself, it’s able to function completely autonomously which makes the fact that the robot was able to clear around 90% of obstacles on an indoor track even more impressive.
2. The Crabster
Developed at the Korean Institute of Ocean Science and Technology, the Crabster is a robot inspired by the ability of crabs and lobsters to retain their balance in strong currents and rough waters to act as an alternative to propeller-driven remotely-operated vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles which don’t cope well with these conditions.
The Crabster is able to walk on the sea floor using six legs powered by 30 joints making it more stable and less likely to stir up debris. Like a crab or lobster, the robot is also able to use its front two legs to grasp objects, which the robot is then able to store in its front compartment. Thanks to its external power source, the Crabster is able to stay underwater for days at a time and the hope is that it can be used to explore ships submerged in strong fast-moving currents which would be able to rip an oxygen mask from a human diver’s face.
Inspired by the biology of a fly, the RoboBee developed in a Harvard robotics laboratory is half the size of a paperclip with two wafer-thin wings that flap at 120 times per second allowing for vertical take off, hovering, and steering. Taking inspiration from insect biology, the researchers at Harvard were able to create innovative solutions for micromanufacturing and control systems. The tiny robot flaps its wings using strips of ceramic that expand and contract when an electric field is applied. Thin hinges of plastic embedded within the carbon fiber body frame serve as joints and each wing is controlled independently by a complex and delicately balanced control system in real-time.
Researchers say that the Robobee could be used for things like environmental monitoring, search-and-rescue operations, or assistance with crop pollination. But they also say that abstracting the materials, fabrication techniques, and components that emerge from its developments might prove to be even more significant.
Wyss Founding Director Don Ingber extolled the benefits of developing tech inspired by nature:
“Harnessing biology to solve real-world problems is what the Wyss Institute is all about. This work is a beautiful example of how bringing together scientists and engineers from multiple disciplines to carry out research inspired by nature and focused on translation can lead to major technical breakthroughs.”
It’s not all about solving complex engineering problems, though; there are robotic animals being developed by companies like Hasbro for the simple purpose of providing companionship without the responsibility of taking care of a real animal. Introducing Gadgette’s own office cat:
It’s not warm, it’s not overly convincing in its movements and sometimes it frowns at us with eyebrows we’ve only recently realised are there (maybe it’s more like a real cat than we thought) but it serves as a comforting reminder that we’re a long way away from becoming Rick Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?