Editorial Feature

How Do Animal Movements Inspire Robot Design?

By merging biological principles with technological innovations, biomorphic robots offer a promising avenue for problem-solving and advancement in many fields.

Cheetah running

Image Credit: Jayaprasanna T.L/Shutterstock.com

The Advantages of Animal Locomotion

Biomorphic robots can be defined as the combination of "bio" (meaning life) and "morph" (meaning form or shape), referring to a machine reproducing the movement or function of animals in real-world environments.

Biological organisms inspire these robotic systems, and as a result of their inspirations, biomorphic robots leverage natural principles or designs to enhance their functionality and adaptability in specific applications.

Existing biomorphic robots take on a range of forms and include many features, including flexible and organic-looking structures, lifelike movement, sensory capabilities, and even biological materials. These robots are designed to achieve specific goals that typical robots cannot. For instance, biological inspirations enable the enhancement of robot adaptability, locomotion efficiency, or interaction with natural environments.

The application of biomorphic robots is widespread, including search and rescue missions, environmental monitoring, agriculture, healthcare, and exploration. Examples range from the ability of a biomorphic robot snake to explore the narrow spaces of disaster-stricken areas to a bird-inspired robot to conduct aerial surveillance.

Diversity in Form and Function of Biomorphic Robots

Biomorphic robots are not a new concept and represent a branch of biorobotics related to bionics. However, biomorphic robot systems are unique in the way that they closely mimic natural processes, distinguishing them from prosthetics or other inventions in related fields. Examples of biomorphic robots can be found across land, air, and sea.

Inspired by land-based systems, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed CHEETAH, a four-legged robot with a flexible spine, which allows it to mimic a cheetah's agility, speed, and dynamic running movements.

Similarly, RHex is a six-legged robot inspired by insects capable of traversing rough terrain and climbing obstacles, making it suitable for search and rescue missions and exploration. Lastly, the company Festo invented the BionicKangaroo, capable of jumping and hopping using pneumatic actuators and elastic springs, allowing it to store and release energy to mimic the movement of a kangaroo.

In the air, biomorphic robots aim to replicate the flight capabilities of birds, including their agility, maneuverability, and energy efficiency, to navigate complex environments and perform tasks more effectively.

Festo - SmartBird

Video Credit: Festo/YouTube.com

Festo made the SmartBird, an autonomous seagull-like robot that can flap, twist, and maneuver like real bird wings. Contrastingly, the Robo Raven developed at the University of Maryland has independently controllable wings that allow it to perform complex aerial maneuvers, such as hovering, rolling, and even flying upside down.

Finally, researchers have developed Flapping Wing Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) mimicking bird flight on a small scale, often used for surveillance, data collection, and exploration in environments inaccessible to larger drones.

Due to the high energy efficiency and adaptability of systems, aquatic biomorphic robots have also gained popularity. Tsybina et al. (2022) discussed how fish-like robots are simpler than land-based systems and can produce dynamic movements with little energy. As a result, fish-like robots are particularly suited for ocean exploration, search and rescue applications, as well as sampling when combined with additional tools.

A 2022 study by Mitin et al. presented a robot capable of thunniform movement in an aquatic medium based on 3D models of a photograph. Thunniform locomotion is particularly efficient; RoboTuna, one of the first biomorphic robots from MIT, provided maneuverability as well as fast movement. The range of fish-like designs was presented by Tsybina et al. (2022), who discussed the value of high-speed robotic designs based on tuna.

Challenges and Innovations in Animal-Inspired Movement

Despite their broad range of designs and applications, developing biomorphic robots presents several challenges due to the complexity of mimicking biological organisms. Firstly, mimicking the biomechanics and locomotion of living organisms is challenging due to the complexity of the knowledge required to replicate the principles and mechanics of biological systems.

If our understanding of target systems is incomplete, the robot as a whole may not function or be considerably less efficient.

Secondly, biomorphic robots require sensors and perception systems that can match locomotion to the environment. Biological organisms possess sophisticated sensory systems, but replicating them in robots requires costly and complex sensor technologies associated with signal-processing algorithms that can decipher the environment. In turn, if the robots cannot adjust to their environments, they may become far less successful at their target functions.

Finally, the cost of biomorphic robots is one of the greatest challenges. Many of the aforementioned examples of robots are single prototypes and have limited scalability due to the necessary materials, manufacturing, testing, and upkeep. Not only are biomorphic robots difficult to design effectively, but their durability and availability are key limitations to their production.

Nevertheless, technological advancements are addressing these challenges to improve biomorphic robot design, manufacturing, and production further. The simplification of systems based on commercial products reduces costs, while the open accessibility of machine learning programs provides a trainable and accessible solution for potential manufacturers.

Moreover, ongoing research is focusing on developing flexible, self-healing, and self-regenerating materials that can mimic the properties of biological organisms to reduce upkeep costs.

Research has also focused on developing ‘soft’ robots. A persistent challenge in conventional robot engineering is that robots have limited adaptability to unpredictable terrain, which soft robots can conform to. The potential for soft robots was presented in a 2012 study by Trimmer et al., who discussed the promising abilities of soft robot body plans, developing biocompatible and biodegradable materials from cultured insect muscles.

Conclusion

Biomorphic robots have emerged at the forefront of scientific and engineering innovations. The ability to replicate the form, function, and behavior of biological organisms enables a high degree of applicability in various fields. However, significant challenges remain, such as perfecting biomechanics, enhancing sensory perception, and optimizing energy efficiency.

Looking ahead, biomorphic robots represent an area of technological advancement for the future of medicine, ocean exploration, and search and rescue. Progress in associated fields, including material science, control systems, and artificial intelligence, will accelerate the progress of biomorphic robots. In turn, the development of new robots and the improvement of existing systems can usher in a new era of versatile and efficient robotic systems.

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References and Further Reading

Kim, S., et al. (2013). Soft robotics: a bioinspired evolution in robotics. Trends in Biotechnology, 31(5), pp. 287–294. doi.org/10.1016/j.tibtech.2013.03.002

Mitin, I., et al. (2022). Bioinspired propulsion system for a thunniform robotic fish. Biomimetics, 7(4), p. 215. doi.org/10.3390/biomimetics7040215

Trimmer, B. A., et al. (2012). Towards a biomorphic soft robot: Design constraints and solutions. Conference: Biomedical Robotics and Biomechatronics (BioRob), 2012 4th IEEE RAS & EMBS International Conference. doi.org/10.1109/biorob.2012.6290698

Tsybina, Y., et al. (2022). Toward biomorphic robotics: A review on swimming central pattern generators. Chaos, Solitons & Fractals, 165, p. 112864. doi.org/10.1016/j.chaos.2022.112864

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