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Millions of years of evolution have allowed animals to develop some elegant and highly efficient solutions to problems like locomotion, flight, and dexterity. As Boston Dynamics unveils its latest mechanical animals, here’s a rundown of nine recent robots that borrow from nature and why.
SpotMini – Boston Dynamics
Starting with BigDog in 2005, the US company has built a whole stable of four-legged robots in recent years. Their first product was designed to be a robotic packhorse for soldiers that borrowed the quadrupedal locomotion of animals to travel over terrain too rough for conventional vehicles.
The US Army ultimately rejected the robot for being too noisy, according to the Guardian, but since then the company has scaled down its design, first to the Spot, then a first edition of the SpotMini that came out last year.
The latter came with a robotic arm where its head should be and was touted as a domestic helper, but a sleeker second edition without the arm was released earlier this month. There’s little detail on what the new robot is designed for, but the more polished design suggests a more consumer-focused purpose.
OctopusGripper – Festo
Festo has released a long line of animal-inspired machines over the years, from a mechanical kangaroo to robotic butterflies. Its latest creation isn’t a full animal—instead it’s a gripper based on an octopus tentacle that can be attached to the end of a robotic arm.
The pneumatically-powered device is made of soft silicone and features two rows of suction cups on its inner edge. By applying compressed air the tentacle can wrap around a wide variety of differently shaped objects, just like its natural counterpart, and a vacuum can be applied to the larger suction cups to grip the object securely. Because it’s soft, it holds promise for robots required to operate safely in collaboration with humans.
CRAM – University of California, Berkeley
Cockroaches are renowned for their hardiness and ability to disappear down cracks that seem far too small for them. Researchers at UC Berkeley decided these capabilities could be useful for search and rescue missions and so set about experimenting on the insects to find out their secrets.
They found the bugs can squeeze into gaps a fifth of their normal standing height by splaying their legs out to the side without significantly slowing themselves down. So they built a palm-sized robot with a jointed plastic shell that could do the same to squeeze into crevices half its normal height.
Snake Robot – Carnegie Mellon University
Search and rescue missions are a common theme for animal-inspired robots, but the snake robot built by CMU researchers is one of the first to be tested in a real disaster.
A team of roboticists from the university helped Mexican Red Cross workers search collapsed buildings for survivors after the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico City in September. The snake design provides a small diameter and the ability to move in almost any direction, which makes the robot ideal for accessing tight spaces, though the team was unable to locate any survivors.
The snake currently features a camera on the front, but researchers told IEEE Spectrum that the experience helped them realize they should also add a microphone to listen for people trapped under the rubble.
Bio-Hybrid Stingray – Harvard University
Taking more than just inspiration from the animal kingdom, a group from Harvard built a robotic stingray out of silicone and rat heart muscle cells.
The robot uses the same synchronized undulations along the edge of its fins to propel itself as a ray does. But while a ray has two sets of muscles to pull the fins up and down, the new device has only one that pulls them down, with a springy gold skeleton that pulls them back up again. The cells are also genetically modified to be activated by flashes of light.
The project’s leader eventually hopes to engineer a human heart, and both his stingray and an earlier jellyfish bio-robot are primarily aimed at better understanding how that organ works.
Bat Bot – Caltech
Most recent advances in drone technology have come from quadcopters, but Caltech engineers think rigid devices with rapidly spinning propellers are probably not ideal for use in close quarters with humans.
That’s why they turned to soft-winged bats for inspiration. That’s no easy feat, though, considering bats use more than 40 joints with each flap of their wings, so the team had to optimize down to nine joints to avoid it becoming too bulky. The simplified bat can’t ascend yet, but its onboard computer and sensors let it autonomously carry out glides, turns, and dives.
Salto – UC Berkeley
While even the most advanced robots tend to plod around, tree-dwelling animals have the ability to spring from branch to branch to clear obstacles and climb quickly. This could prove invaluable for search and rescue robots by allowing them to quickly traverse disordered rubble.
UC Berkeley engineers turned to the Senegal bush baby for inspiration after determining it scored highest in “vertical jumping agility”—a combination of how high and how frequently an animal can jump. They recreated its ability to get into a super-low crouch that stores energy in its tendons to create a robot that could carry out parkour-style double jumps off walls to quickly gain height.
Pleurobot – École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Normally robots are masters of air, land, or sea, but the robotic salamander built by researchers at EPFL can both walk and swim.
Its designers used X-ray videos to carefully study how the amphibians move before using this to build a true-to-life robotic version using 3D printed bones, motorized joints, and a synthetic nervous system made up of electronic circuitry.
The robot’s low center of mass and segmented legs make it great at navigating rough terrain without losing balance, and the ability to swim gives added versatility. They also hope it will help paleontologists gain a better understanding of the movements of the first tetrapods to transition from water to land, which salamanders are the best living analog of.
Eelume – Eelume
A snakelike body isn’t only useful on land—eels are living proof it’s an efficient way to travel underwater, too. Norwegian robotics company Eelume has borrowed these principles to build a robot capable of sub-sea inspection, maintenance, and repair.
The modular design allows operators to put together their own favored configuration of joints and payloads such as sensors and tools. And while an early version of the robot used the same method of locomotion as an eel, the latest version undergoing sea trials has added a variety of thrusters for greater speeds and more maneuverability.
Image Credit: Boston Dynamics / YouTube Continue reading
Walking on two legs isn't as easy as it seems. For robots and their designers, it is an even bigger challenge! Researchers at EPFL's Biorobotics Laboratory are testing novel algorithms to improve humanoids' ability to walk and interact with humans. Continue reading
How many cyborgs did you see during your morning commute today? I would guess at least five. Did they make you nervous? Probably not; you likely didn’t even realize they were there.
In a presentation titled “Biohacking and the Connected Body” at Singularity University Global Summit, Hannes Sjoblad informed the audience that we’re already living in the age of cyborgs. Sjoblad is co-founder of the Sweden-based biohacker network Bionyfiken, a chartered non-profit that unites DIY-biologists, hackers, makers, body modification artists and health and performance devotees to explore human-machine integration.
Sjoblad said the cyborgs we see today don’t look like Hollywood prototypes; they’re regular people who have integrated technology into their bodies to improve or monitor some aspect of their health. Sjoblad defined biohacking as applying hacker ethic to biological systems. Some biohackers experiment with their biology with the goal of taking the human body’s experience beyond what nature intended.
Smart insulin monitoring systems, pacemakers, bionic eyes, and Cochlear implants are all examples of biohacking, according to Sjoblad. He told the audience, “We live in a time where, thanks to technology, we can make the deaf hear, the blind see, and the lame walk.” He is convinced that while biohacking could conceivably end up having Brave New World-like dystopian consequences, it can also be leveraged to improve and enhance our quality of life in multiple ways.
The field where biohacking can make the most positive impact is health. In addition to pacemakers and insulin monitors, several new technologies are being developed with the goal of improving our health and simplifying access to information about our bodies.
Ingestibles are a type of smart pill that use wireless technology to monitor internal reactions to medications, helping doctors determine optimum dosage levels and tailor treatments to different people. Your body doesn’t absorb or process medication exactly as your neighbor’s does, so shouldn’t you each have a treatment that works best with your unique system? Colonoscopies and endoscopies could one day be replaced by miniature pill-shaped video cameras that would collect and transmit images as they travel through the digestive tract.
Singularity University Global Summit is the culmination of the Exponential Conference Series and the definitive place to witness converging exponential technologies and understand how they’ll impact the world.
Security is another area where biohacking could be beneficial. One example Sjoblad gave was personalization of weapons: an invader in your house couldn’t fire your gun because it will have been matched to your fingerprint or synced with your body so that it only responds to you.
Biohacking can also simplify everyday tasks. In an impressive example of walking the walk rather than just talking the talk, Sjoblad had an NFC chip implanted in his hand. The chip contains data from everything he used to have to carry around in his pockets: credit and bank card information, key cards to enter his office building and gym, business cards, and frequent shopper loyalty cards. When he’s in line for a morning coffee or rushing to get to the office on time, he doesn’t have to root around in his pockets or bag to find the right card or key; he just waves his hand in front of a sensor and he’s good to go.
Evolved from radio frequency identification (RFID)—an old and widely distributed technology—NFC chips are activated by another chip, and small amounts of data can be transferred back and forth. No wireless connection is necessary. Sjoblad sees his NFC implant as a personal key to the Internet of Things, a simple way for him to talk to the smart, connected devices around him.
Sjoblad isn’t the only person who feels a need for connection.
When British science writer Frank Swain realized he was going to go deaf, he decided to hack his hearing to be able to hear Wi-Fi. Swain developed software that tunes into wireless communication fields and uses an inbuilt Wi-Fi sensor to pick up router name, encryption modes and distance from the device. This data is translated into an audio stream where distant signals click or pop, and strong signals sound their network ID in a looped melody. Swain hears it all through an upgraded hearing aid.
Global datastreams can also become sensory experiences. Spanish artist Moon Ribas developed and implanted a chip in her elbow that is connected to the global monitoring system for seismographic sensors; each time there’s an earthquake, she feels it through vibrations in her arm.
You can feel connected to our planet, too: North Sense makes a “standalone artificial sensory organ” that connects to your body and vibrates whenever you’re facing north. It’s a built-in compass; you’ll never get lost again.
Biohacking applications are likely to proliferate in the coming years, some of them more useful than others. But there are serious ethical questions that can’t be ignored during development and use of this technology. To what extent is it wise to tamper with nature, and who gets to decide?
Most of us are probably ok with waiting in line an extra 10 minutes or occasionally having to pull up a maps app on our phone if it means we don’t need to implant computer chips into our forearms. If it’s frightening to think of criminals stealing our wallets, imagine them cutting a chunk of our skin out to have instant access to and control over our personal data. The physical invasiveness and potential for something to go wrong seems to far outweigh the benefits the average person could derive from this technology.
But that may not always be the case. It’s worth noting the miniaturization of technology continues at a quick rate, and the smaller things get, the less invasive (and hopefully more useful) they’ll be. Even today, there are people already sensibly benefiting from biohacking. If you look closely enough, you’ll spot at least a couple cyborgs on your commute tomorrow morning.
Image Credit:Movement Control Laboratory/University of Washington – Deep Dream Generator Continue reading
The NABiRoS (Non-Anthropomorphic Bipedal Robotic System) novel approach to an efficient “walking” system for humanoids places the legs in the sagittal plane and adds compliance to the feet, reducing the actuated degrees of freedom to just four! This drastically reduces … Continue reading
Spherical Induction Motor Eliminates Robot’s Mechanical Drive System
PITTSBURGH— More than a decade ago, Ralph Hollis invented the ballbot, an elegantly simple robot whose tall, thin body glides atop a sphere slightly smaller than a bowling ball. The latest version, called SIMbot, has an equally elegant motor with just one moving part: the ball.
The only other active moving part of the robot is the body itself.
The spherical induction motor (SIM) invented by Hollis, a research professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, and Masaaki Kumagai, a professor of engineering at Tohoku Gakuin University in Tagajo, Japan, eliminates the mechanical drive systems that each used on previous ballbots. Because of this extreme mechanical simplicity, SIMbot requires less routine maintenance and is less likely to suffer mechanical failures.
The new motor can move the ball in any direction using only electronic controls. These movements keep SIMbot’s body balanced atop the ball.
Early comparisons between SIMbot and a mechanically driven ballbot suggest the new robot is capable of similar speed — about 1.9 meters per second, or the equivalent of a very fast walk — but is not yet as efficient, said Greg Seyfarth, a former member of Hollis’ lab who recently completed his master’s degree in robotics.
Induction motors are nothing new; they use magnetic fields to induce electric current in the motor’s rotor, rather than through an electrical connection. What is new here is that the rotor is spherical and, thanks to some fancy math and advanced software, can move in any combination of three axes, giving it omnidirectional capability. In contrast to other attempts to build a SIM, the design by Hollis and Kumagai enables the ball to turn all the way around, not just move back and forth a few degrees.
Though Hollis said it is too soon to compare the cost of the experimental motor with conventional motors, he said long-range trends favor the technologies at its heart.
“This motor relies on a lot of electronics and software,” he explained. “Electronics and software are getting cheaper. Mechanical systems are not getting cheaper, or at least not as fast as electronics and software are.”
SIMbot’s mechanical simplicity is a significant advance for ballbots, a type of robot that Hollis maintains is ideally suited for working with people in human environments. Because the robot’s body dynamically balances atop the motor’s ball, a ballbot can be as tall as a person, but remain thin enough to move through doorways and in between furniture. This type of robot is inherently compliant, so people can simply push it out of the way when necessary. Ballbots also can perform tasks such as helping a person out of a chair, helping to carry parcels and physically guiding a person.
Until now, moving the ball to maintain the robot’s balance has relied on mechanical means. Hollis’ ballbots, for instance, have used an “inverse mouse ball” method, in which four motors actuate rollers that press against the ball so that it can move in any direction across a floor, while a fifth motor controls the yaw motion of the robot itself.
“But the belts that drive the rollers wear out and need to be replaced,” said Michael Shomin, a Ph.D. student in robotics. “And when the belts are replaced, the system needs to be recalibrated.” He said the new motor’s solid-state system would eliminate that time-consuming process.
The rotor of the spherical induction motor is a precisely machined hollow iron ball with a copper shell. Current is induced in the ball with six laminated steel stators, each with three-phase wire windings. The stators are positioned just next to the ball and are oriented slightly off vertical.
The six stators generate travelling magnetic waves in the ball, causing the ball to move in the direction of the wave. The direction of the magnetic waves can be steered by altering the currents in the stators.
Hollis and Kumagai jointly designed the motor. Ankit Bhatia, a Ph.D. student in robotics, and Olaf Sassnick, a visiting scientist from Salzburg University of Applied Sciences, adapted it for use in ballbots.
Getting rid of the mechanical drive eliminates a lot of the friction of previous ballbot models, but virtually all friction could be eliminated by eventually installing an air bearing, Hollis said. The robot body would then be separated from the motor ball with a cushion of air, rather than passive rollers.
“Even without optimizing the motor’s performance, SIMbot has demonstrated impressive performance,” Hollis said. “We expect SIMbot technology will make ballbots more accessible and more practical for wide adoption.”
The National Science Foundation and, in Japan, Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (KAKENHI) supported this research. A report on the work was presented at the May IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Stockholm, Sweden.
Video by: Carnegie Mellon University
About Carnegie Mellon University: Carnegie Mellon (www.cmu.edu) is a private, internationally ranked research university with programs in areas ranging from science, technology and business, to public policy, the humanities and the arts. More than 13,000 students in the university’s seven schools and colleges benefit from a small student-to-faculty ratio and an education characterized by its focus on creating and implementing solutions for real problems, interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation.
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