The ancient velociraptor, of Jurassic Park infamy, had something in common with today’s smaller, less extinct reptiles. They share a supple tail that swings to help the reptiles maneuver as they leap through the air from perch to perch. A new understanding of how the reptiles move means that lizards, like caterpillars and spiders before them, are providing scientists with the right kinetic clues to create agile rescue robots.
Take the African Agama lizard. When clearing the air between branches, the reptile swings its tail upwards, keeping its body upright as it flies through the air. The swinging tail makes sure it elegantly lands at its destination feet first, rather than hurtling through space to reach its target with a smack, in a pile.
Taking inspiration from the leaping lizard and its tail movements, UC Berkeley roboticists led by Robert Full have designed a robot with a tail, that bests even the Agama lizard at gliding and landing. When it rolls off a ramp, a gyroscope built into the robot provides feedback about its orientation as it drops. Accordingly, by swinging the tail just so, the engineers control the robot and lift its front, keeping it upright to land wheels first.
The angle of the tail keeps the robot (and velociraptor) balanced as it cruises through the air, in kind of the same way that a tightrope walker uses a long pole to keep steady.
These tricks could be a handy tool in the tricky field of robot movement. The authors of the study, published in Nature, believe that it could be used for search and rescue robots that would need to navigate difficult terrain, out of the reach of human rescue squads. Such sites pose unique mobility challenges for engineers—how would a robot navigate the uneven surfaces of fresh rubble, or steep around drops in a collapsed mine shaft?
A robot like the Tailbot could be deployed to jump over gaps in the ground and or help a flying robot land on wonky terrain, McNeil Alexander, a locomotion expert and emeritus professor at the University of Leeds told Co.Exist. "It would be useful to have a system that would let the robot land at a suitable angle when it completes a jump," he said.
In the last decade, several researchers, like Robin Murphy (one of Fast Company's Most Influential Women of 2011), have been experimenting with microrobot crews to comb through difficult turf. Robin Murphy’s ground-hugging robots crawl along like caterpillars and rely on gravity to solve these issues. A new generation of robots inspired by Full and his team’s work can now add the physics of flying and falling to the skill set of rescue robots.