Snakes certainly make it look easy when they slither forward, leaving perfect S-curve tracks behind them, but scientists have long been puzzled by the mechanics of snakes' locomotion. Now, after a series of experiments and some computer modeling, David Hu has cracked the case. Learn more in this Science Nation video.
Credit: Science Nation, NSF
Robofly is a robot that scientists designed to study the aerodynamics of flapping flight. Watch a video of Robofly moving and learn about the scientific world of robots in this special report on robots and biology.
Credit: Michael Dickinson, California Institute of Technology
Michigan State University researchers are designing swimming robots or “robofish,” which could provide a new level of underwater environmental data. Hear more in this Discovery Files podcast. Audio Credit: NSF/Karson Productions
The sight of a cockroach scurrying for cover may be nauseating, but the insect is also a biological and engineering marvel. Cockroaches are providing researchers at Oregon State University with what they call "bioinspiration" in a quest to build the world's first legged robot that is capable of running effortlessly over rough terrain.
The Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) supports research aimed at an integrative understanding of organisms. The goal is to predict why organisms are structured the way they are and function as they do.
June 7, 2010
Creeping, Crawling Caterpillars
Roly-Poly role models for future robots
Sometimes it pays to be spineless. Take the caterpillar--it can squirm and crawl in ways that would make a contortionist green with envy.
One such animal, a green tobacco hornworm, dangles off Barry Trimmer's finger, half of its body squirming and bending in mid-air. What fascinates Trimmer, a Tufts University biology professor, is how caterpillars can move in ways animals with spines and skeletons can't.
"This little guy can grip and hold and move, and we're trying to make devices that are going to be able to do this," says Trimmer.
By devices, Trimmer is referring to a robotic caterpillar. Already, he and his team have molded plastic models to simulate the caterpillars' movements. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), these caterpillars could very well be the nucleus of a whole new field of robotics.
"It’s what we call soft material robotics," says Trimmer. "This doesn't really exist as a discipline currently, but we're rapidly moving towards that."
Imagine small, squishy robots that could be dropped into tall trees to survey the canopy of a forest or be flown into space to monitor equipment on board the International Space Station.
"It can burrow, it can climb, and it can navigate through complex terrain," notes Trimmer. "What we hope to do is make an extreme form of robot that is able to perform all of those tasks wherever it finds itself."
Caterpillars don't have big brains and these robots won't either. "Instead what you have is a body that can perform most of the tasks itself," explains Trimmer. "What we're trying to do is understand how the nervous system and the body work together to create those complex movements. And if you think about it, that could be really interesting because if you don't have a rigid skeleton, if you don't have bones, you can move in ways that stiff animals can't."
To make a robot patterned on caterpillars, Trimmer and his team study every aspect of them, down to the DNA.
"I've been working with these animals for 20 years. I still can't believe the transformation from caterpillar to the moth. It's all in one genome. It's a bit like reprogramming a battleship, using the same blueprint you started with, and building a 737 jet."
Trimmer hopes in the next five to 10 years, small, squishy robots will be a reality. Some, he says, might even be safe enough to swallow in order to diagnose disease or deliver medications.