3 Revolutionary Robots Based on Members of the Animal Kingdom
Science and science fiction alike have often used human beings as the basis for robot design and advancement. From the humanoid servants of the upcoming TV show "Humans" to the disaster relief robots of the recent DARPA Robotics Challenge, we have imagined and seen the capabilities of robots that strive to mimic, and potentially exceed, the uses and skills of the human body. But the human body, in organic or robotic form, has its limitations, and scientists are increasingly looking the bodies of other types of animals for inspiration. From a real-life Doctor Octopus to robotic teddies, here are a few cutting-edge technologies inspired by other members of the animal kingdom:
Scientists and engineers from many different institutions, including Hebrew University in Israel and King's College London, have turned to the octopus to show us a completely new way of performing surgery. While most surgical robots are made with rigid, linked components, forced to move in straight lines that are difficult to navigate around corners accurately and safely, the new robots of the STIFF-FLOP project use the model of the soft-to-stiff tentacle as a safer, more flexible alternative.
STIFF-FLOP (STIFFness controllable Flexible and Learnable manipulator for surgical Operations) robots, modeled after octopus tentacles, are soft and malleable enough to move around organs without causing damage. Unlike stiffer surgical tools, they can compress themselves and conform their shape to narrow openings in a patient's body while still maintaining the ability to stiffen in order to perform the actual surgery.
Carnegie Mellon University is developing Snakebots, modular robots that look and move like snakes, are responsive to touch, and are highly versatile. The basic Snakebot, much like the STIFF-FLOP tentacles, can be used to safely traverse dangerous or tight spaces like pipes and disaster areas. It also possesses unique springs that allow it to respond to pressure, allowing it to "feel around," gain an understanding of its surroundings, and adapt to its environment.
However, the simple Snakebot is just the beginning. The ultimate goal is to create a new basic robotic structure that can be built upon and manipulated to perform any desired task. Snakebots are made of connected modules that are responsible for different types of movement. The Snakebot can be broken down and rebuilt to allow for the desired robotic movement and combined to create more complex robots. Instead of creating individual expensive robots that can only perform one specific task, the Snakebot could act as the basic building block for a variety of robots, like bipedal humanoids, or multi-legged insect-bots such as the Snake Monster:
Robotic Stuffed Animals
AIST, a leading Japanese industrial automation company, has developed PARO, a therapy robot based on a baby harp seal. Unlike the STIFF-FLOP arm and the Snakebot, PARO provides robotic "support" through its soft fluffiness. Even President Obama is not immune to its charm:
But PARO is more than just an animated stuffed animal. It has five sensors (tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture centers) that allow it to perceive its environment, feel and respond to human touch, and recognize voices and words. It can be "trained" through positive and negative reinforcement, as it repeats actions that lead to stroking and avoids actions that lead to hitting. It can moves its head and legs, and it imitates the voice of a baby harp seal.
In facilities and hospitals where live therapy animals, for whatever reason, cannot be offered to help patients, PARO can be used as an alternative to animal therapy, while providing the same documented benefits. PARO has been found to reduce stress in patients and their caregivers, improve patient relaxation and motivation, and even improve socialization between patients and their human caregivers. As an added bonus, PARO has been deemed World's Most Therapeutic Robot by Guinness World Records.
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