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Industry Trends: 5 New Robotics Technologies Inspired by Nature

Robot and animal contact, Photo by Odan Jaegar
Robot and animal contact, Photo by Odan Jaegar
Odan Jaeger

Engineers and Biologically Inspired Design

It’s evident that when it comes to robotics design that many engineers take inspiration from the natural world. And it makes sense: when looking for a time-tested design with some guaranteed measure of success, there’s no better place to look than nature.

We see this very frequently in robotics and automation; just consider the omnipresent robotic arm, a design borrowed from our own natural model. If an engineer wants to borrow an element from a plant, animal, or other organism or natural system, she knows that that design element comes with generations of testing through natural selection. This means that she can be assured that the element she borrows is going to be very good at the task for which it was intended. And with a particular task in mind for her robot, she may even be able to surpass the efficiency and precision of the original model.

What does this mean for the robotics industry?

It's hardly a new trend that engineers should observe and borrow from nature. However, the announcements of a few new robots on the market suggest that engineers are getting even more creative with the ways they observe nature and then apply their observations.

And with scientists constantly developing new materials for robotics engineers to use, the ways in which robots can approach or even surpass the abilities and complex skills of the organisms they imitate is closer than ever before.

Check out the some of the coolest recent examples of bio-inspired robotics!

  1. Researchers use robots to control and direct animal groups
    In populations of cockroaches, chickens, fish, and other animals, researchers have been able to use robots to direct herds to make certain decisions. This kind of technology may find quite a few applications in instances where we need to move, direct, or herd both wild and domestic animals.
  2. "Termite" robots self-manage and coordinate as a group
    Historically, manufacturers have been able to use robots for many assembly and production processes, but still needed managers to oversee the robots' activities. These robots are designed to act like termites in that they can achieve tasks together by communicating as a large group with no supervision.
  3. Scientists develop extra strong artificial muscles with fishing line and sewing thread
    In robots that are meant to move and bend like living organisms, strong artificial muscles can be a real challenge for engineers. These scientists developed a design that allows them to make a strong, powerful muscle with cheap, easily-accessible materials.
  4. NASA unveils an unusual robot that moves with extendable and retractable limbs
    This odd robot looks like a tumbleweed as it moves around, but it in practice it is more similar to an amoeba in that it can extend and retract its rods to feel out its terrain and move quickly without sustaining too much damage as it rolls around the rocky surface of Mars.
  5. Robots with highly sensitive whiskers
    After witnessing the abilities of Etruscan pygmy shrew to sense its surroundings with sensitive whiskers, engineers developed composites of carbon nanotubes and silver nanoparticles that can detect extremely small pressure changes. With these whiskers, the robot can detect its surroundings and move without bumping into objects.

Rachel Greenberg for Automation GT , a manufacturer of high-quality automation systems in Carlsbad, CA.