Inspired by nature: RobotsMarie Donlon | December 06, 2021
Evidence of nature’s inspiration on modern-day technology, otherwise known as biomimicry, is no doubt visible in virtually every facet of the industry — from electronic microfliers inspired by wind-dispersed seeds to precise microchip sensors inspired by spiderwebs.
Nature has also been a proven source of inspiration for recent developments in the robotics field, namely, robots that mimic animals and animal locomotion — primarily jumping, swimming, climbing, walking and even punching.
Follow along as Engineering 360 explores some of these recent robotic systems that have been inspired by nature.
Researchers from the Harvard University John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed a robot that mimics the powerful punch of the mantis shrimp.
The strength and speed of the punch, which is reportedly unrivaled in the natural world, is equal to that of a bullet shot from a gun, according to researchers. As such, it is powerful enough to break the arm off of a crab or penetrate the shell of a snail.
To replicate the speed and force of the mantis shrimp, the SEAS team built a robot model of the mantis shrimp and developed a mathematical model of the movement, mapping the four phases of the mantis strike.
Researchers from the Seoul National University of Science and Technology (SeoulTech) have developed a chameleon-like tongue to enable robots and drones to “grab” objects from a distance.
The robotic tongue, called the “Snatcher,” mimics the motion of a chameleon’s tongue as it snatches insects. Reportedly, the Snatcher can wrangle objects weighing 0.06 lb from distances of 31.5 inches away in under 600 milliseconds.
To mimic the chameleon, researchers built a spring-like device operated via an active clutch and a single series elastic actuator. A steel tapeline, which is powered via a wind-up spring and designed to function much like the chameleon’s tongue, will pass through two geared feeders. The clutch enables the Snatcher to rapidly unwind in one direction and then retract, via switching the direction of the geared wheel.
The researchers intend to install the Snatcher on commercial drones for the purpose of grasping packages.
Engineers at Johns Hopkins University have developed a snake robot that can navigate difficult terrain to potentially perform functions associated with search and rescue missions.
Taking inspiration from nature, the engineers developed the snake robot so that it can climb stairs as well as traverse rough terrain, such as rubble, debris and other obstacles one might encounter in the aftermath of a disaster.
To accomplish this, the engineers watched footage of snakes in motion and developed an internal suspension system for the robot snake’s body to mimic how snakes “wriggle” themselves. The system enables the robot to mimic the wriggling motion by compressing each of the body’s segments into the surface below it when appropriate.
Spot the Dog from Boston Dynamics is, arguably, everywhere, checking for gas leaks, doing summersaults, performing inspections, the list goes on. Spot’s latest job is now with the automotive manufacturing giant Hyundai Motor who has recently announced a pilot test of its factory safety monitoring robot, the “Factory Safety Service Robot.”
Following its acquisition in mid 2021 of Boston Dynamics, Hyundai Motor has transformed one of Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot dogs into a system that maintains the safety of personnel in the manufacturing space.
The pilot, which is being conducted at a Kia Manufacturing plant in South Korea, is testing the Factory Safety Service Robot’s features, which include artificial intelligence (AI) for detecting people in the manufacturing space, a thermal camera for detecting high temperatures associated with fires and other risks, navigation technology for moving within the space and lidar technology for detecting open doors and other possible obstacles.
The Factory Safety Service Robot can also be remotely operated, shares real-time photos of the facility floor and issues an alarm in the event of an emergency.
Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Biomimetic Robotics Laboratory have developed a series of mini robot cheetahs that are capable of flipping, playing and hiding.
Weighing just 20 lb each, the quadruped robots are driven by 12 different motors and remotely controlled by operators. They can travel at speeds of up to 6 mph and can perform backflips, play soccer and hide in piles of leaves. The team intends to develop even more algorithms that will enable the robots to accomplish additional tasks in the future.
Its developers envision that the latest iteration of cheetah robots will be appropriate for applications such as elder care and emergency response scenarios.
Scientists from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) have created miniature robots — roughly the size of a grain of rice — that can swim, grip and navigate barriers via applied magnetic fields.
The mini robots are composed of biocompatible polymers featuring embedded magnetic microparticles. To enable the robots to swim, grip and overcome barriers, a remote operator controls the robot by varying the strength and direction of magnetic fields produced by an electromagnetic coil system.
According to the NTU Singapore team, the robots could be used for biomedical and manufacturing applications among others. For instance, the swimming robots could be used for targeted drug delivery or surgical procedures while the gripping robots could be used to assemble 3D structures such as lab on chip devices.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have developed a nearly indestructible, insect-sized robot that moves like a scurrying cockroach.
Roughly the size of a postage stamp, and weighing in at just 0.1 g, the robotic cockroach is composed of piezoelectric material called polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF). When applying an electric voltage, piezoelectric material tends to expand or contract. However, coating the PVDF in layers of elastic polymer caused the entire sheet to bend instead of expanding or contracting. The researchers then added a front leg to the sheet so that the material bends and straightens, and the motion drives the device forward.
Reportedly, the robot is among the fastest of insect-sized robots and can withstand up to 60 kg of weight without damage.
Researchers suggest that a robot of this size could be used in search and rescue missions, accessing narrow and hard-to-reach places that humans and rescue dogs cannot.
These are just a few of the example of robots that have been inspired by nature. Check back when Engineering360 next examines nature’s influence on material sciences.