Creepy-Crawly Robots
June 24, 2013

Creepy-Crawly Robots

I wrote last time about some interesting biomimetic robots. Today I am looking at the crawling, slithering, creepier-looking robots.

Though it flies instead of crawling, the first one of these robots I’ll describe is a fly created at Harvard. It is 1/2 inch long and has a wingspan of a little over an inch. Its wings flap 120 times per second. They flap independently, which is how real flies maintain their course and altitude. There are still large problems to be overcome. As there is no room on so small a robot, its control center and power supply are attached through a tiny wire. Scientists are hoping to develop a wireless model within the next five years. These tiny robots are envisioned for use in search and rescue. They could also be used for environmental monitoring and even possibly to help pollinate crops.

German scientists have created a spider robot that they also envision using for search-and-rescue missions or to enter the site of a nuclear disaster. The robot could carry video cameras and sensors to transmit information to people outside of the danger zone. Their spider uses elastic drive bellows for joints and built-up body pressure to extend its legs. Four of its legs remain on the ground, as four prepare for the next step. It is made using a 3D printer which makes it inexpensive to produce, so inexpensive that it could be discarded after one use.

Another insect-bot is based on the ant. It doesn’t look much like an ant, but it mimics the way ants are able to find the shortest route between their nest and food. The ant-bot is also able to signal that path to other ant-bots using light instead of pheromones. Using this “collective swarm intelligence,” scientists at the New Jersey Swarm Lab are hoping to increase the efficiency of human systems such as freeway mapping and shipping routes.

Not so useful is a robot named Salamandria that swims in the water and walks on land. Like a real salamander, its legs stick out on the side. It has no ultimate purpose other than to look like a sci-fi monster when it walks across the landscape and into the water.

Even creepier is the robot snake. It can slither, swim and even climb up a pole. The snake bot is, like some of its electronic friends, destined for use in search and rescue. In addition, other uses are envisioned. In a smaller version, it might be able to repair engines from the inside or diffuse bombs. It might even be used inside the body as a diagnostic tool. That idea could have problems. I can just picture the look I would give my gastroenterologist if he said, “Here, swallow this snake.”

There are several different versions of the cockroach robot. (Yuck!) One designed in Berkley two years ago has wings that won’t allow it to fly, but will allow it to jump off the end of a table, land on its feet and keep going. Another robo-roach is made of cardboard. Called VELOCIRoACH, it travels at seven miles an hour, covering its own body length twenty seven times in a second. Its springy legs hit the ground 15 times per second and allow it to climb over obstacles just like the real thing. Fortunately, I don’t think it climbs up walls. Finally we have the cyborg roach. It has a little backpack strapped to its back that communicates directly with the neurons in the roach’s antennae. The roach’s movements are then controlled by a mobile phone. The technology is similar to that of a cochlear implant.

Our last creepy-crawly robot for today is the earthworm. Called Meshworm, its soft mesh body crawls across surfaces by squeezing segments of its body. The mesh is made of nickel and titanium wire that stretches and contracts with heat. It may prove useful in rough terrain or tight spaces. Its creators also envision its use in endoscopy, implants and prosthetics.

Who knew that so many things that cause phobias in real life could turn out to be so useful when they are made into robots. I’m not sure I even want to think about what the next creepy-crawly robot will be.

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