National Geographic News
An illustration of a robot that resembles a cheetah cub.

The cheetah-cub robot was designed by Swiss scientists to move like a cat.

Illustration courtesy EPFL via European Pressphoto Agency

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic

Published June 18, 2013

Image of the 125 Anniversary logo What runs and hops much like a nimble house cat but has no head? An experimental cheetah-cub robot, currently covering new ground for scientists learning how to make four-legged robots move more efficiently.

See a video of the cheetah robot.

The robot, made by scientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, boasts three-segment legs—just like living felines—and uses motor muscles and spring tendons to move much like the real thing. (Related: "Animals Inspire New Breed of War Robots.")

That means speed—about seven of its own body lengths per second. While the robot's speed is far slower than a house cat's, it's significantly faster than that of other quadruped robots its size, according to a new study, published in the International Journal of Robotics Research.

And like its real-world counterparts, the cheetah-cub robot is nimble and stable, providing a platform for future research in all types of efficient robot movement.

The scientists made the robot cub-size because it's lighter and more compact than an adult cheetah, making experiments easier.

Many animals are uniquely adapted to survive and thrive in different environments around the world—and robot designers have taken notice. Biomimetics—the science of engineering robots, materials, and systems inspired by natural design—has created a mechanical menagerie of animal-inspired robots that climb, fly, swim, and slither. Here are a few highlights.

Fly-Size Drone Takes to the Air

The housefly is common, but the way it maneuvers is interesting—the insect can flap its wings independently some 120 times each second. A Harvard University robotics team was able to replicate this ability in a half-inch-long (1.27-centimeter-long) drone.

Their carbon-fiber fly cruises freely about the lab, but it's not yet autonomous. No battery is small and strong enough to drive the drone, and an onboard control module would be too bulky, so power and control are provided through a hair-thin cord that tethers the fly—for now. A wireless version may lift off within three to five years.

The tiny, maneuverable insects might go everywhere real flies go. They could perform search and rescue in hazardous environments, monitor chemicals in the atmosphere, or even pollinate crops like bees. (Related: "Tiniest Drone Takes Off, Sort Of.")

Snakebots Slither Where Humans Can't Tread

Snake or serpentine robots can crawl, climb, and even swim to areas where people, or more conventional robots, can't go. Multiple actuated joints make them effective in difficult environments, like the rubble of a collapsed building, and allow tremendous flexibility of motion. (Watch a video of snakebots at the Carnegie Mellon University Biorobotics Lab.)

Snakebots can be armed with cameras, or sensors that monitor environmental conditions like radioactivity or chemical levels, to provide data on difficult environments.

Smaller versions, such as surgical robot snakes, might venture inside the human body itself for diagnostics or medicine delivery. Small snake or wormbots could also repair engines or machinery from the inside or diffuse bombs, allowing people to stay out of harm's way.

3-D Printed Spiders Flex Robotic Legs

German scientists have tapped the cutting-edge technology of 3-D printing to produce an arachnid-inspired robot. (See more pictures of animal robots.)

Instead of muscles, the robots use hydraulics to drive their legs, building pressure and pumping fluids to flex their artificial limbs. Like real spiders, they keep four legs on the ground at all times and still have four others to manipulate over tough terrain—or even to launch themselves into the air.

Roboticists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing, Engineering, and Automation IPA in Stuttgart, Germany, designed their high-tech spider as a first-responder that can be deployed on hazardous chemical accidents, for example, and return imagery and environmental data to help humans handle the hazards.

Robofish Fight Pollution

There are many fish in the sea—and a growing number of their robotic counterparts as well. One recent example is an intelligent robot fish tested in Spanish waters to detect pollution in ports and identify its sources in real time. (Related: "Robot Fish to Detect Ocean Pollution.") The robofish are programmed with a degree of self-awareness so they're able to map where they are, where they are going, exactly where they take water samples, and what those results show. The robots can communicate all this information to their fellow robofish, enabling teamwork, and to people on shore—all the while avoiding obstacles in the water as they complete their tasks and return for recharging.

The fish were produced by SHOAL, a pan-European project backed by EU funds.

"SHOAL has introduced the capability of cutting the detection and analysis of pollutants in seawater from weeks to just a few seconds," Luke Speller, SHOAL project leader and senior research scientist at BMT Group, said in a statement last year.

"Furthermore, the artificial intelligence which has been introduced means that the fish can identify the source of pollution, enabling prompt and more effective remedial action."

DARPA's Cheetah Robot

The world's militaries are extremely interested in robots that might limit human risk—and they're enlisting Mother Nature's help.

For instance, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) unveiled its own cheetah-inspired robot in 2012, which is not related to the Swiss project.

"DARPA is attempting to understand and engineer into robots certain core capabilities that living organisms have refined over millennia of evolution: efficient locomotion, manipulation of objects and adaptability to environments," program manager Gill Pratt explained in a statement at the time. (See a video of a cheetah running: "National Geographic Films World's Fastest Animal.")

Engineers saw an animal beautifully adapted to run across tough terrain with speed and agility where wheeled or tracked robots would have trouble, and they replicated parts of its stride patterns, limb placement, and flexibility.

Though the robot cheetah is still cutting its chops on a treadmill, it has attained speeds of over 28 miles (45 kilometers) per hour. (Watch a video of the DARPA cheetah running.)

That tops the pace of champion sprinter Usain Bolt, at least theoretically, though the robot isn't ready for a real test match.

Nano Hummingbird is Nimble Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

As one of the world's smaller functional unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, the nano hummingbird can perform much like mother n­ature's avian acrobats. The robot was built by AeroVironment as part of the DARPA's Nano Air Vehicle (NAV) program. (See video of the nano hummingbird in flight.)

The experimental robot uses a pair of flapping wings just 6.5 inches (16 centimeters) from tip to tip to hover and dart about in all directions, indoors or out, and can withstand winds of five miles (eight kilometers) per hour.

In initial tests the robot hovered for eight minutes at a time and transitioned easily to forward flight, at some 11 miles (17 kilometers) per hour, and back to hover mode.

Even with batteries, communication systems, and an onboard video camera, the robobird weighs in at just two-thirds of an ounce (19 grams)—less than a typical AA battery.

Robot Ants Reveal "Swarm Intelligence"

Real ants don't have a lot of individual intelligence, so their robotic counterparts are correspondingly low in processing power.

But thinking together as a swarm, they may have much to teach us.

Scientists at the New Jersey Institute of Technology's Swarm Lab mimicked ants with simple robots and studied the way they navigated mazes by the path of least resistance. And when robot ants discovered the least physically taxing pathway they marked it with lights, as real ants do with chemical markers, so that eventually the whole colony performed more efficiently.

This "ant algorithm" of collective swarm intelligence might help humans make our own societies more efficient, and robot ants are an exciting avenue of research into how it can happen. Thinking as ants and moving together to reveal patterns the robots may help improve the efficiency of human systems like shipping routes, city planning, freeway mapping, and mobile phone tower placement. (Related: "Robot Ants Could Make Us More Efficient.")

Chameleon-Like Robot Changes Color

It's easy to see how some robots mimic an animal's abilities even when they don't resemble the animal itself. In the case of this chameleon-like, color-changing machine, it's not easy to see the robot at all—and that's precisely the point.

This inexpensive robot, developed at Harvard under DARPA's Maximum Mobility and Manipulation program, is made of silicon rubber and veined with plastic tubes that transfer dye as directed from a control system to make the body blend into its surroundings just as many types of animals do. A chemiluminescent dye also makes the robot glow in the dark.

Scientists hope the robot will provide a unique research window into animal behaviors, including the camouflage techniques that so many species use for both self-defense and more efficient predation. (See a video of the rubber robot changing colors.)

Giant RoboJelly May Make Waves Across Earth's Oceans

Jellies may be a pain for beachgoers, but they're a remarkable example of a simple animal perfectly adapted to its environment. A new giant robot jellyfish from Virginia Tech University, dubbed Cyro, is the size and weight of a typical adult man. It's jelly-like in feel, thanks to a thick layer of soft silicon skin that covers the animal's electronic nervous system.

Why create artificial jellyfish when real ones are so plentiful? The machines, partially funded by the U.S. Navy, could someday float the world's seas as self-contained units to perform surveillance, monitor the ocean environment, map the ocean floor, trace currents, or even clean oil spills.

The prototype design, while not ready for the open ocean, is especially attractive for long duration projects because, like a real jellyfish, it's meant to use relatively little energy as it drifts along. Scientists are still working, however, to mimic the real animal's morphology and propulsion to match the more efficient operation of the Real McCoy. (See the RoboJelly in action.)

Stickybot Climbs Gecko-Style

Many who have watched a gecko lizard scale a vertical wall have wondered how the animal keeps its grip. Roboticists from institutions around the country have teamed up to take it one stop further and replicate the ability in robots so that they might climb even surfaces as tough as vertical glass. Stickybot is a project of the Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Lab in Stanford, California. (Related: "Watery Gecko Grip Could Lead to Stickier Tape.")

Geckos climb with a process of dry adhesion that's produced by the synergy of fingerprint-like ridge patterns called lamellae, which are covered with millions of tiny hairs, or setae.

A process called Van der Waals force makes these toes work like a one-way adhesive, which sticks in one direction yet comes off effortlessly in the other. (Also see "Gecko, Mussel Powers Combined in New Sticky Adhesive.")

That means geckos, and the Stickybot that mimics them, don't have to expend effort to "unstick" themselves each time they move a toe.

Timothy Steele
Timothy Steele

I watched this and he said it's modeled after a house cat not a cheetah cub. get it straight people.


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