Robotics is an emergent technological field. Research into robot design has proved helpful for many different industries, but challenges limit the creation of truly commercially viable models. This article will discuss how modeling machines on animals can improve quadruped robot system design.
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The Challenges of Mobile Robot Design
There has been increased focus on mobile robots in recent years, which can be separated into three main classes: wheeled, tracked, and legged robots.
While wheeled and tracked robots are widely used in the commercial market, they do not navigate rugged terrain easily as unexpected obstacles, and sharp declines are often problematic. Tracked robots have some advantages over their wheeled counterparts but also experience problems with challenging environmental conditions.
Using legged designs overcomes this problem. After all, humans and animals can clear objects with relative ease, so designing legged robots is a logical step. Legged robots have improved maneuverability, efficiency, and are better at navigating obstacles, but they are not as cost-effective, controllable, or stable. However, advances in design and software capability are helping to overcome these issues.
Another challenge is autonomy. Designing robots to operate independently of human control allows them to react to unexpected occurrences in the field more dynamically. Although advances in AI and software improve autonomous behavior, designing legged robots that accurately mimic animal movement and have a high degree of autonomy is a key focus for modern robotic engineering.
How can Modeling Robots on Animal Locomotion and Gait Aid Future Design?
It is not enough to have limbs: robots must be able to use them effectively. Although physical design can go a long way to resolving issues, it does not solve them completely. Observing the behavior and physiology of animals, as well as understanding gait generation, is paramount to dynamic design for legged robots.
Animals use their legs to provide fast and reliable locomotion over almost any surface they encounter – understanding how they achieve this is central to efficient legged robot design. By doing so, robots can be designed to climb, jump, clamber up rocky terrain, and traverse even ground quickly.
Quadruped robots remain the best choice due to improved mobility and stability; legs are easily maintained, controlled, and designed compared to other types of legged robots. The study of biologically inspired dynamic gait generation is central to the future of quadruped robot system design, development, and deployment.
Industries that Benefit from Robots Modeled off Animal Behavior
Many industries and sectors can benefit from research into quadrupedal robot systems. These include military and emergency services, including use in combat models, search and rescue efforts, bomb disposal, and transportation of materials. The ability to transverse unfamiliar terrain using adaptable legged robots is also useful for space exploration.
Other areas include the delivery and manufacture of consumer goods, as quadrupedal robots can easily work in warehousing environments, delivering stock without the need for human operators.
There are also domestic applications for quadruped robot systems, such as companion robots or use in care settings.
What Examples of Robots Based On Animal Physiology and Behavior Are There?
Arguably, the most recognizable quadrupedal robot is Spot, Boston Dynamic’s agile mobile robot. Their Big Dog, the predecessor of Spot, came to public attention in 2009, garnering much attention online and introducing the world to the potential of quadrupedal robot systems. Spot is a sleeker model that has significantly improved upon its predecessor, such as incorporating 3D vision sensors in its head. Boston Dynamic’s offerings are not the only next-generation mobile robot systems in development, though. Many other teams are working in the field, basing their own designs on a broad variety of animals.
Video Credit: Boston Dynamics/YouTube.com
ANYmal has been developed by ETH Zürich, designed to traverse incredibly difficult and complex terrain. Its main feature, according to its inventor professor Marco Hunter, is its proprietary “dynamic running” locomotion. ANYmal has been deployed successfully in a variety of industrial settings, including the ARGOS challenge.
The main aim of ARGOS is to develop a new generation of autonomous robots that can operate in the dangerous conditions of fossil fuel exploration, performing inspection tasks such as anomaly detection, and intervene in emergency situations. This quadruped robot system can find footholds blindly, without the need for sensors that work on vision alone. It also uses sensors to detect gas leaks, listen for pipeline fissures, coordinate movements, and map its surrounding area with pinpoint accuracy.
A team at Nihon University in Japan is developing a quadrupedal robot with typical animal-like actions. The system has a bio-inspired gait system that uses pulse-type hardware neuron models (P-HNMs) to control its legs; it emulates the pulse waves emitted by biological neurons that control gait and leg movement. The novel gait generation method produces nonlinear movement behaviors, which are advantageous for the system’s ability to cope with real-world conditions.
The University of California, Berkeley, is developing a system based upon the fox squirrel, mimicking its ability to read objects with its physical limitations in mind. The research could pave the way for autonomous systems that can make split-second assessments and adjustments to navigate complicated terrain.
Animal Inspired Robots: the Future
Research into animal locomotion provides invaluable data for developing future-ready, next-generation autonomous quadrupedal robot systems. The advent of robots in everyday life is just around the corner, where we will see autonomous systems that mimic animals performing a wealth of tasks in almost every industry, suggesting an exciting outlook for the future of animal-inspired robots.
References and Further Reading
Mitchell, O., (2017) The Advantage of Four Legs. [online] CHRONICLING THE ROBOT INDUSTRY. Available at: https://robotrabbi.com/2017/11/20/4legs/
Biswal, P. and Mohanty, P., (2021) Development of quadruped walking robots: A review. Ain Shams Engineering Journal, 12(2), pp.2017-2031. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.asej.2020.11.005
Open Access Government. (2021) Quadruped robot system with animal like actions. [online] Available at: https://www.openaccessgovernment.org/robot-system/119848/
Mizokami, K., (2021) The Army Is Modeling Its Future Robots on... Squirrels. [online] Popular Mechanics. Available at: https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/research/a37339533/army-robots-squirrels/