7 robots that were inspired by nature

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7 robots that were inspired by nature

Nature has inspired robotics since its earliest days. In 1739, French artist Jacques de Vaucanson gave the world the Digesting Duck, a surreal automaton that appeared to eat — and, yes, poop out — grain. In the middle of the 20th century, British neuroscientist William Grey Walter invented turtle and tortoise robots, so-named for their slow movement and shell shapes.

In modern robotics, biology is often view as a method for problem solving — to help modern robots move more naturally and better interact with their world. Nature’s inspiration has been wide ranging in recent robotics, from flying bats and swimming fish, to Big Dogs, to mollusks like squids and octopi, which have led to the creation of the important subcategory of soft robotics.

The biorobotics field has been booming in recent years, leading to some of the most innovating and interesting machines we’ve seen to date. 

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Octobot (Octopus)

The squishy maneuverability of cephalopods have made an important inspiration for robotics, from Soft Robotics’ industrial grippers to UC San Diego’s rock walking 3D printed legs. Designed by the pioneering soft robotics researchers at Harvard, Ocotobot looks the most like an actual octopus of the bunch. The robot was 3D printed with embedded circuits and moves thanks to hydrogen peroxide-powered chemical reactions that inflate and deflate its pneumatic chambers.

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Pleurobo

Salamanders are living fossils, offering a direct link back to some of the earliest animals to walk the Earth. In order to better understand how they move, scientists at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne spent hours watching the amphibians move in X-ray videos. With that knowledge, the team created Pleurobo, a slightly terrifying walking robotic skeleton that winds through tall grasses like its amphibian inspiration. The team believe the link it’s explored between the spinal cord and brain could provide important insight into neuroprosthetics (brain/machine interfaces).

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Animal Dynamics Microdrone (Dragon Fly)

Rotary blades have become the standard for commercial and many industrial drones. But they’ve got plenty of drawbacks, from noise, to power consumption, to their erratic behavior in windy conditions. But you know what is good at those things and doesn’t have any spinning blades? Dragonflies. Engineering startup Animal Dynamics turned to the prehistoric insects for inspiration with a UK Department of Defense-backed micro-drone. Its added characteristics could help the small UAV become an ideal tool for surveillance and peeking around corners on the battlefield undetected.

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Cassie (Ostrich)

More often than not, bipedal robots take their main inspiration from people. It makes sense — after all, we’ve built our world to suit our needs, so why not the robots that we’re building to live in them? Oregon State University’s robot Cassie, on the other hand, is very clearly inspired by big, fast moving bipedal birds like the ostrich. In addition to speed, Cassie’s design makes the headless robot extra resistant to slips, falls and kicks to its torso.

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SpotMini

It wouldn’t be a biologically-inspired robotics roundup with Boston Dynamics. The company has been making some of the most awe-inspiring quadrupedal robots for years, including, most notably, the military pack bot, Big Dog. During its short time at Google, the company produced its arguably least frightening robot to date, the SpotMini. A scaled down version of its jaunty Spot robot, the new Mini is a 65-pound walking robot with a robot arm that doubles as a neck, turning the the robot into a rough approximation of a baby giraffe — and a high-tech beer can delivery device.

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Robotic Skin (Beetles)

Not all biologically-inspired robots look like their source material. When a team at MIT was looking to outfit a robot with electronic skin, it found inspiration in the golden tortoise beetle, an insect able to drain the shiny coloring from its shell when threatened. The 3D printed circuitry designed by the MIT team can change color when stress is applied. Speaking with TechCrunch about the project, team lead Subramanian Sundaram said, “it’s easy to look at nature because we are so far behind.”

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Festo (Butterfly)

Aside from the prominent branding on their wings, Festo’s graceful robotic butterflies look more like that animal inspiration than any other entry on this list — at least from a far. The robotic insects are great at flying, though their compact, lightweight size means they can’t actually carry any on-board sensors — the system currently relies on exterior camera to do all of the tracking. Still, they’re a beauty to behold.

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