As a child, did you dream of a future world where robots were part of our everyday life? With robots such as Johnny 5, Terminator’s T-800, and of course R2-D2 and C-3PO as major characters in popular sci-fi films, I think many of us shared this vision of the future.
Today we see little sign of this robotic world we were promised, but progress is slowly being made. Robots hoover our homes, and many robots now work on production lines. Reasons for this slow progress are abundant, but the main one is simply this: it is very difficult to design, build, and run a robot that works reliably. (Shame the films didn’t show that part!)
Oddly enough, biology may be the answer. In studying animal movement, biologists are working alongside roboticists to develop a new generation of robots that are inspired by animals. Evolution has worked on animals for millions of years to produce efficient, agile movement suitable for their environment; by using animal locomotion as models for our robots, we are effectively ‘borrowing’ evolution’s work.
Several multidisciplinary teams have succeeded in recent years to build robots like this; notably the University of Pennsylvania with their RHex series of robots, inspired by cockroaches (photo above) and Boston Dynamics with lots of robots such as Cheetah, BigDog, and Atlas (photo below). Increased funding, exposure and expertise like this will help to open up new avenues for robot technology in our daily lives.
As for me, I’m a PhD student in the Structure & Motion Lab at the Royal Veterinary College. I play the role of the biologist in one of these multidisciplinary teams, studying the movement of spiders in the hope that I can help to design an efficient eight-legged robot. While the prospect of a spider-robot terrifies my arachnophobic friends, I think a small, agile robot like this would be ideal for use in the Armed Forces, or in disaster situations to explore dangerous terrain, preventing loss of human life.