Robots Designed to Show How Dinosaurs Moved

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 13, 2003
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If Peter Dilworth gets his way, museum dinosaur exhibits may soon whir and hum into action—and capture the fascination of a whole new generation of scientists as lifelike robots stand up and walk around like the ancient creatures did millions of years ago.

Dilworth, a former research scientist in the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, currently runs Dinosaur Robots, Inc. in Boston. His aim is to make lifelike dinobots.

"If it is in a museum, I would think that a lot of kids would see dinosaurs walk and go up to them," he said. "It is a new opportunity to get them interested in science, see what a cool thing it is."

Dilworth's original creation, a representation of a birdlike, big-brained, meat-eating Troodon dinosaur that prowled Earth about 75 million years ago during the late Cretaceous period, walked across his desk in October 2000 and become the first two-legged three dimensional dinobot to walk outside of Japan.

Now Dilworth and his team of collaborators, which includes noted paleontologist and artist Gregory Paul from Baltimore, Maryland, and special effects company Hall Train Studio of Toronto, Canada, are putting the finishing touches on a four-legged Protoceratops, a pig-sized horned dinosaur that also lived during the late Cretaceous.

In addition to capturing the attention of young children, the team hopes their robotic dinosaurs will help scientists better understand how dinosaurs moved around and behaved. As well, the robotics should lead to better artificial legs and other devices to allow disabled people to walk.

"Of course, part of the effect is simply the wow factor," said Paul, "to see sophisticated devices that closely mimic extinct beasts that so many find so fascinating."

Brawn and Brains

It took Dilworth six years to create the Troodon dinosaur, which he calls Troody. It weighs 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms), stands 18 inches (45 centimeters) tall, is about 4 feet (1.3 meters) long from snout to tail, and is chock full of sophisticated electronics and an assortment of screws, rods, and springs.

One of the engineering challenges he had to overcome was the stiffness of the robot world to give Troody a lifelike gait. To do this, Dilworth took advantage of technology developed at MIT's Leg Lab called force control, which gives robots springy joints, not stiff ones. The technology is also applied to the Protoceratops, which is nearing completion.

"Our robots use force control to walk more smoothly," said Dilworth. The system consists of sensors that measure the force on the springs that make up the dinosaur's joints. When the force reaches a pre-programmed point it comes to rest, giving the robots a more realistic walk.

In order for the dinobots to take advantage of all this sophisticated hardware and walk the Earth as their real-life ancestors did, Dilworth inserts a small computer in their chests that is attached to a network of wires and sensors all over their bodies.

The whole contraption resembles something like a human's nervous system, with the central computer processing hundreds of signals from the sensors per second in order to keep the dinobots upright and walking properly.

The computer is told what moves to make via commands sent by a joystick, but it is the computer where most of the walking is done. Dilworth likens it to a pilot flying a jet fighter, in which the pilot enters a few commands for the sophisticated computers on board to process.

Creating such brains for robots, however, is an ongoing process. "Intelligence is something that is infinite in its range," said Dilworth. "It can go from the intellect of an insect up to Einstein and smart people like that." Robotics, he said, is at the toaster stage.

Dinosaur Look-alike

Paul has had a lifelong interest in the evolution of robotics and using robotics to realistically recreate dinosaurs. When he read about Dilworth's project in MIT's magazine Technology Review he picked up the phone and gave the young scientist a call.

"Peter is way ahead of the others in terms of realistic robotics motion," he said. "I was very interested in working together to make a new generation of sophisticated robots."

Dilworth says that at the time he got the call, he was reading Paul's 1988 illustrated book Predatory Dinosaurs of the World and the two immediately went to work exchanging information on how to create the most realistic dinobots.

Paul also introduced Dilworth with Hall Train Studio, who is helping to develop the special effects for the dinosaurs, such as skin and feathers.

"Not everything biology has come up with can be replicated mechanically at this time, especially in the slendered fingers and toes," said Paul. "So we work together to find out what compromises are necessary and how to keep them to a minimum."

The team hopes to sell their dinobots to museums around the world. Ultimately Dilworth would like to have the resources and knowledge to accurately recreate a life-sized Tyrannosaurus rex.

"I would love to do that, it would be a great thing," he said.

More National Geographic News Stories on Dinosaurs:
Dino Dung: Paleontology's Next Frontier?
Do They Really Look Like That? The Science of Dino Art
Dinosaur Footprints: Tracks Tell Prehistoric Secrets
Four-Winged Dinosaurs found in China, Experts Announce
Utah Dinos May Have Been Killed By Drought
Cuban Dinosaur: First Confirmed Remains Discovered
Dinosaur Cannibal?—Mystery in New Mexico
Tetrapod Fossil Found—First Ever in Asia
New Picture of Dinosaurs Emerging
Fossil Implies Our Early Kin Lived in Trees, Study Says
Weird Buck-Toothed Dinosaur Found
Dinosaur Tracks Preserved on Scottish Island
Dinosaur Tracks Shed Light on Sauropod Evolution
Comets May Have Led to Birth and Death of Dinosaur Era
Fossil of Dog-Size Horned Dinosaur Unearthed in China
Tyrannosaurus rex Was a Slowpoke
Researchers Rethink Dinosaur Die Off Scenario
Researchers Melt Polar Dinosaur Mysteries
Scientist's Finds Spur New Thinking on Dino Evolution
Dino-Era Vomit Fossil Found in England
Study Paints New Picture of Dinosaur's Nose
Skeleton of New Dinosaur "Titan" Found in Madagascar
"Tidal Giant" Roamed Coastal Swamps of Ancient Africa
"Feathered" Fossil Bolsters Changing Image of Dinosaurs
Oddly Angled Teeth Make Masiakasaurus Stick Out
New Find: Pterosaur Had Strange Crest, Fishing Style
Dinosaur Beak Probably Used to Strain Food, Not Kill Prey

Additional Dinosaur Resources from National Geographic:

Paul Sereno: National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Dinosaur Hunter
Wanted: Albertosaurus
Dinosaur Eggs
Destinations: Dinosaur National Monument


Use this National Geographic News article in your classroom with these Xpeditions lesson plans and student activity:
K-2: Dinosaur Bodies
3-5: How Do Scientists Find Dinosaur Fossils?
6-8: The Science of Digging Up Dinosaurs
9-12: The Evolution of Dinosaurs Over Geologic Time
K-2: Those Fussy Dinosaurs!
9-12: Physical Characteristics of Places: The Fossil Record
Activity: A Dinosaur's Neighborhood

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