Using Biomimicry in Robot Design

Jumping is easy, landing is hard. Having a robot jump—or fly—and then consistently stick the landing in one piece remains one of the standout challenges in robotics. Some drones are large enough to pack landing gear. Others solve this problem by incorporating durable Styrofoam parts, or even breaking apart on impact with the ground by design. Land-bound robots solve the problem mostly by being designed never to jump at all.

For robots, jumping represents an important leap forward. To jump and land safely doesn't just require a sturdy set of shock absorbers. Complex mechanical systems are required to orient the robot's body as it travels through the air, combined with algorithms and possibly machine-vision sensors which allow the machine land right-side up. To solve this problem, designers are using the discipline of biomimicry to replicate the best jumpers in the natural world.

One Giant Leap for One Tiny Mammal

We've already spoken about how biomimicry has led designers to create robots inspired by bugs. It isn't just for bugs, however. To enable robots to safely jump, a team of researchers is studying a primate species called the Galago—the best jumpers in the animal kingdom.

At their very largest, Galagos grow to be about four and a half pounds—but they have the ability to jump over eight feet in the air. Although this is in part due to their powerful leg muscles—which comprise a quarter of their mass—other factors combine to make this tiny creature into a successful jumper. Their tendons are made of material that allows them to store energy in the form of elasticity, they reconfigure their bodies midflight for aerodynamics, and their long tails act as stabilizers.

Using Animals for Robotic Inspiration

How has this jumping ability inspired robot designers? A team at UC Berkeley has created a robot known as Salto (for Saltatorial Locomotion on Terrain Obstacles). Salto isn't the highest-jumping robot on earth—this honor goes to Taub, a locust-inspired robot that can jump 11 feet in the air. Taub, however, prepares for its jumps very slowly and must take several seconds between each individual jump.

Salto, on the other hand, uses its galago-inspired leg configuration to be ready to jump again immediately after its first jump. This leads to some impressive moves. Evoking a number of martial-arts masters, Salto has the ability to jump into a wall, and then time its second jump to rebound off that wall, gaining in height during the process. 

Tiny Steps Forward

The robot's biomimicry still isn't perfect. The Salto prototype must still land on a mat or a piece of netting in order to be on the safe side. Also, like most robots, Salto doesn't jump as high when it's untethered from a power source. The potential applications of this jumping ability, however, are manifold. For example, small agile robots are usually touted in disaster rescue and recovery operations. Salto is small enough to be considered for this application—and is certainly more agile that its competitors.

Aside from letting robots achieve mechanical might, biomimicry has another important use: making robots appear more friendly and approachable. Jibo can't exactly jump into your arms, but he does make use of biomimicry to be more lifelike. As robots begin to become consumer products, these skills will continue to be emphasized. Robots won't just have the ability to navigate the world—they'll also be able to make you feel at home.

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