Why build an entirely new robot when you can just copy nature?
That's the idea behind biomimicry, or engineering robots that imitate lifeforms. For example, when scientists are trying to find ways to propel an aquatic robot through water or give an airborne robot flight, they might look to animals like jellyfish or hummingbirds for answers.
To give you a taste of this brave new animal kingdom, we rounded up the nine wildest animal-inspired robots. BigDog ain't got nothin' on this pack.
The Spy Nautilus
John Downer Productions Spy Nautilus © John Downer
Filmmaker John Downer's television series "Dolphins: Spy In The Pod" used a bevy of sea-life-imitating robots to track fast-moving dolphin pods. The strangest of these? The "Spy Nautilus," a robot sea mollusk with cameras behind its eyes. According to the Daily Mirror, a curious pod surrounded the robot, "revealing to the camera in close-up a tiny five-day-old calf, still wrinkled from birth."
Neuroscience education startup Backyard Brains sells "the first commercially available cyborg," or kits that enable you to make a cockroach remote-controllable by implanting electrodes in its antennae. Human operators can "drive" these cockroaches, turning them right and left with a smartphone app, for a few hours until the cockroaches become desensitized to the electrodes. The technology attracted critics like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which argued that the app was "encouraging kids to torture bugs." Apple and Google have since removed Roboroach from their respective app stores.
Micro Air Vehicles Project
All over the world, honeybees are dying, and farmers are in danger of losing one of their primary sources of pollination. Could robot honeybees step in to help? The Harvard Microrobotics Lab is betting on it. Their bees are made of laser-cut layers of carbon fiber titanium, brass, ceramic and plastic sheeting, and they weigh stunningly little: Sixty-three bees about equal the mass of one U.S. quarter. Sadly, the robot bees still can't make honey.
The Hummingbird Nano Air Vehicle
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which commissions research for the Department of Defense, has a history of making crazy robots -- but we think this cyborg hummingbird may take the cake. Weighing less than an AA battery, the Hummingbird Nano Air Vehicle could be used to scout danger zones unobtrusively, relaying live video back to soldiers positioned a safe distance away.
It's a four-legged robot running right at you! WildCat, funded by DARPA and built by the robot-makers at Google-owned Boston Dynamics, is a third-generation quadruped, succeeding the company's earlier four-legged robots, BigDog and Cheetah. Like Cheetah, WildCat is maneuverable, and like BigDog, it doesn't require a tether. But unlike BigDog, WildCat can reach a stunning 16 miles per hour when running.
© CNRS Photothèque / CRCA Toulouse / Simon GARNIER
Last year, Simon Garnier at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Swarm Lab made 10 ant-like robots named Alice. of them. His tiny "Alice" robots were programmed to mimic ant-like behaviors so scientists like Garnier could study how ant colonies efficiently navigated complex environments in low-visibility conditions.
Boston Engineering's BIOSwimmer™
This robot, created by the U.S. government to inspect ships, takes its cues from the way real-life tuna get around. Built by the scientists at Boston Engineering with funding from the Department of Homeland Security, this tuna robot can "swim" in the ocean, allowing it to wriggle into spaces larger, traditional sensors can't go and stay steady and keep position even in the face of fast-moving ships.
Speaking of underwater reconnaissance, take a look at Virginia Tech's new jellyfish, Cyro. This 5-foot-7-inch monstrosity is meant, like BIOSwimmer, for surveillance while submerged. But unlike BIOSwimmer, Cyro doesn't need a tether connecting it to anything above the surface. It can remain completely anonymous underwater, in all its gelatinous glory.
But perhaps no other extant robot is quite as strange as Foundation for Research and Technology's new robotic octopus, an eight-legged beast that can propel itself on arm power alone. Capable of strokes even real octopi can't do, the octobot is one of the newest advances in the burgeoning field of "soft robotics" -- the art of making robots out of soft, durable materials instead of the traditional metal and plastic.