The best of Europe’s animal-like robots has been on display over the last November weekend in London’s Science Museum during an event showcasing nature-inspired designs.
Part of the European Robotics week, London’s Robot Safari brought together 13 different teams from seven different countries, all of them developing cutting edge robots, which, although now mostly entertaining, might one day find use in different areas including operations in disaster zones, medicine or archaeology.
“In Robot Safari, we have three different habitats as we call them, we have the ocean, the savannah and the jungle and we have a variety of different animal and plant-based robots which are living within these habitats,” said Nicola Burghall, the content developer of the Robot Safari.
“For example in our ocean, we have shoals of robotic fish, we also have a turtle based robot and a jellyfish robot whereas in the savannah we have a cat based robot and in the jungle we have a salamander based robot, a bat-bot and a spider-bot.”
Apart from admiring the sophisticated creatures built by engineers from European universities, visitors also had a chance to try hands-on how difficult it is programme an animal-like robot or to build their own.
Out of the 13 displayed designs, the amphibious salamander, capable to crawl on the ground and swim in a pool, together with a super-fast four-legged cheetah cub, were the biggest show stoppers.
The cheetah, about the size of a really small dog, can run at 3.2 miles an hour.
“The really key feature of this robot is the leg design,” said Massimo Vespignani from the Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne. “It’s a bio-inspired design copying the morphology and the length of the legs of cats or dogs or cheetahs. We are also really interested in the compliance of the legs. We have many springs in the legs and many compliant points which allow the robot to tackle some disturbance in the ground.”
Though at this stage the cub resembles mostly a child’s toy, the team believes the legged design could eventually work in areas struck by disasters as it could overcome obstacles and move in rough terrain better than robots with wheels.
“We are still really designing and improving the robot. But at certain point, we would like to open-source the design so that other groups and universities can copy it,” said Vespignani.
In the ocean section of the Robot Safari, shoals of luminescent fish were to be seen floating in a fish tank, or electronic turtles designed to test technology for marine science or underwater archaeology.
“Our Arrows turtle is designed to roam around shipwrecks and film it. At the end of the day, the archaeologists will be able to come and pick it up and see what they have on the video,” explained Rasmus Raag from the Tallinn University of Technology.
“We work together with technology companies, which will be producing the robots later after the design is ready and we are also in touch with marine archaeologists and marine scientists, who tell us how they would like to use the technology later. “
Another design – inspired by octopus – aims to developed more sensitive manipulators for future surgery robots.
The Robot Safari follows the successful 2011 Robotville, which was organised by the Science Museum together with the European Union National Institutes for Culture. The European Robotics week is a celebration of the technology that is slowly penetrating all possible areas of life. As the Science Museum content developer Nicola Burghall said, robots are becoming the new dinosaurs, and they are enjoying growing popularity not only among the researchers but also among the public.