Biomimetics: When Robotics Imitate Nature – Robot See, Robot Do


Art imitating nature, or perhaps nature imitating art – it’s an old discussion and one that has been going on for a long time. Technology is much the same in this regard – especially when it comes to robotics. We’ve been building robots for a long time, and we’ve been getting more and more creative with it.

Inspiration can come from many places after all and one of the most popular sources of inspiration is nature – more specifically, the animal kingdom. There are some fascinating creatures in the world and many of them have spectacularly clever traits and abilities achieved through millennia of evolution and natural selection. The term for learning from nature or adapting natural designs as part of a machine learning experience is also referred to as biomimetics or biomimicry.

Arachnida inspiration

It was only a question of time before people started copying those abilities to make their machines more efficient… and sometimes just for the fun of it. This is the case with the BionicWheelBot built by Festo – it is modeled after the so-called flic-flac spider that, rather than walking on its eight legs, folds them into a circle and wheels across the ground to cover large distances.

Three sets of two legs each are curled, while the last two are used to push off – both by the robot and by the flic-flac spider. The BionicWheelBot doesn’t currently have any practical applications but it does a great job of mimicking the effective and unique way the desert-dwelling flic-flac spider travels.

Reptilia inspiration

For a slightly more practical type of robot, you could look at the Snakebot. Developed by Carnegie Mellon University, the robot emulates snakes very closely – it is made up of connected joints that allow it to slither the way a snake can, including lifting its head and looking around.

16 joints are connected per snakebot and allow it to perform all sorts of movements and tasks – these robots are being considered for use in space travel because of their versatility. In other words, although it may not be snakes on planes, it could soon be snakes on spaceships (and that’s a sequel idea if we’ve ever heard one!).

Insecta inspiration

Then there are bees – Nasa announced last year that they are developing robotic bees (“Marsbee“) in order to explore Mars in ways that the rover can’t – they are going to be able to detect methane, which could be a sign of life. These bees haven’t been revealed yet, but they are in development, so it may not be too long before the first batch is sent to the red planet.

Also interesting: Snake-Like Robot from Eelume to Perform Subsea Maintenance Jobs

Chondrichthyes inspiration

When it comes to exploration, there are two big unknowns in the world; space… and the oceans. We still haven’t explored vast areas on our planet, despite our best efforts to do so. There are places humans simply can’t travel to, but luckily there are robots to help with this too.

One such example is the MantaDroid (no, not the subfighter from StarWars). Built by researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS), the bot swims like a manta ray. It uses flexible fins that give it the agility and streamlined design that allows real mantas to travel vast parts of the ocean. Though still experimental, these MantaDroids might help with underwater searches and gathering marine data in the near future.

Photo credit: The feature image is a still from a promotional video and is owned by Festo.

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Melanie Hawthorne
Melanie Hawthorne
Mel is a UK-based journalist that has been writing about tech, science and video games for a few years now. After studying in Vienna, Austria she followed her dreams and moved to London. Said dreams took her through a few different jobs before she settled on what she really wanted to do – write about the exciting world of technology and the delightfully strange things it sometimes produces.
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