Studying Animals to Build better Robots

When building robots there is a seemingly natural inclination to start from scratch but there is no need for this. Nature is full of designs that will do exactly what we want all we have to do is understand how they do it. This is called biomimetics and is becoming increasingly more common though there are numerous examples of this in history from the feathers of a bird helping us to better understand the basics of aerodynamics to the feet of geckos helping us to climb walls better.

Some of the first attempts to build robots using examples from natural examples are in insect like robots. These robots often have very little memory but like insects they can navigate their environment quiet efficiently. They can often fly more precisely than our best engineered aircraft and move on legs with very little computational requirements. Another recent advancement in this technology is swarm robotics. This is the process of using many small, inexpensive robots to do a task rather than a single larger one. Taking from the way that ants and bees work this process is especially useful for searching an environment. Because each individual robot is inexpensive it also make the whole of them far more robust because the loss of a few of the robots has no effect on the whole.

It is not just the bodies of the robots that are being improved through biomimetics but the artificial intelligence of them as well. The problem is that while traditional computers are excellent at solving well defined problems but are incapable of solving problems that do not fit inside their programming. By adding in animal like thought they become more able to solve problems that were unanticipated by the programmers making them far better at doing the seemingly simple tasks like walking and manipulating items that were difficult or impossible for traditional computer robots.

One of the best examples of solving a problem by better understanding animals comes in the gecko. The question began with the simple question, how do geckos climb smooth surfaces. The assumptions were that they had some type of suction ability or gripped the surface. What they found was far more interesting. A geckos foot is covered with thousands of tiny hairs each of them splitting into thousands more tiny hairs. These are so small that they actually interact with the molecular forces and while they have not yet been able to mimic this exactly they have been able to not only build a robotic gecko that can climb walls as well as climbing tools that allows a human to cross a smooth surface using similar methods.

Many of the problems that engineers and scientist are trying to solve have already been solved in nature all we have to do is look, and avoid destroying the answers before we get around to looking.