Picture your favorite
robot. Whether it's Robbie from "Lost in Space" or "Star Wars'"
C3PO, chances are your robot looks more or less like a human. But
there's a growing trend in robotics called biometrics where scientists
create robots that look and act like other animals. As "The World's"
technology correspondent Rebecca Roberts reports, the goal is to
have robots do things humans aren't very good at, like walk the
ocean floor, or even fly.
Joseph Ayers' robot looks
like a lobster. That's not an insult Ayers designed the robot
to do a lot of things lobsters do. You may think lobsters aren't
good for much more than being dipped in melted butter. But Ayers,
a professor at Northwestern University, explains lobsters have some
One of the things that lobsters do that most other animals don't
do well is walk in any direction. They can walk forwards, backwards,
laterally the two directions. They can switch between walking directions
on a step-by-step basis. That gives them incredible ability to maneuver
through very irregular areas: rocky bottoms, areas where there's
seaweed, stuff like that.
That's something current
underwater robots, like the ones used to retrieve the black boxes
from the Egypt Air crash, aren't very good at. That's one of the
reasons those robots are still attached to a boat with heavy, cumbersome
cables. A truly autonomous underwater robot would be extremely useful,
especially for the Navy, who would like a robot to retrieve unexploded
mines from the ocean. But a de-mining robot would have to negotiate
irregular ocean floors, and stay on course in turbulent waters.
So Ayers and his team looked to nature for creatures that had already
solved these problems, and came up with the lobster.
It's called "biomimetics,"
the imitation of a natural phenomenon in robotic form. And the scientists
who practice it say it's just like using a really good library --
why start from scratch to come up with answers for problems already
solved through millions of years of evolution?
Kumph: I saw a sign in the hallway when I was a senior at MIT that
said "come work in a robotic fish." I laughed and said that was
a great idea.
John Kumph, now a graduate
researcher at MIT, took the challenge, and is now building a robot
that looks like a fish -- specifically, a pike. He's hoping robopike
will teach scientists the secret of achieving both speed and agility.
You can build a vehicle that's in the water it's a long tube,
it has a propeller on the back and it will go very very fast through
the water. But it doesn't turn well. You can build a vehicle with
thrusters all over it, it looks like a refrigerator, and it will
turn very well, but it doesn't go straight very well.
Both robopike and robolobster
are designed for jobs that are dangerous or difficult for humans.
But across the country, at the University of California at Berkeley,
scientists are building a robot designed to do what's impossible
for humans: fly.
Berkeley professor Micheal
Dickinson is working on robofly, designed to mimic a standard house
fly. The goal is to create a flying machine totally unlike an airplane
or a helicopter.
The main difference is that insects flap their wings back and forth.
And unless you're very unlucky, airplane wings are rigid and fixed,
move in one direction during a flight from Chicago to Tokyo.
Robofly would be able
to stop, start, and change directions and altitudes easily, less
like a plane and more like an insect. But flight isn't the only
fly talent Dickinson is trying to imitate in robofly. Flies are
also great information processors, taking in visual information
much faster than humans. And flies, unlike robots, are incredibly
The number of times that you've tried to swat a fly and sometimes
you clearly hit it, you know you hit it. Like Mark McGwire with
a rolled up paper. And it slams against the wall, falls on the floor,
and 30 seconds later it kind of shakes, slaps its head, and it's
flying again! This is extraordinary! Imagine doing that by any human-made
Robofly, which, like
robopike and robolobster, is being partially funded by the US Navy,
could eventually be used for stealth surveillance, or search and
rescue applications. If Dickinson and his team can mimic a fly's
uncanny ability to find a warm, sweaty human to land on, robofly
could find trapped earthquake survivors. The goal is to make robots
that can do the tasks that are too dangerous or impossible for humans.
If you find the animal that's already good at that task, you have
a model for your robot.
But any practical application
is still years away. Robofly has yet to fly. And although robopike
can swim, it doesn't have nay sort of intelligence or autonomy.
Robolobster is on schedule to be finished by February 2001. But
one of the toughest hurdles facing robotic critters is one of the
most mundane: unlike their counterparts in nature, these robots
need batteries. And even the most high-tech batteries are still
too big and bulky and run out too soon to make robotic animals anything
more than an interesting experiment.