It is believed that nature is the best teacher out there. Researchers have been inspired by the the movements of snakes and the teamwork of ants for developing search and rescue robots. To carry forward one such project, the Georgia Tech University has received backing through a grant from the National Science Foundation. The project aims to break down biological systems involving limbless propulsion, into mechanical principles for universal application in robot design.
Currently, their work is based on a two-pronged approach focusing on the teamwork found among ants and the sliding and slithering movement of the snakes. The scope of the work is extended to reconnaissance and surveillance activities too. The idea is to find an optimal method of propulsion using least amount of energy. Headed by professor David Hu, the research team is focused more on the energy aspect and less on the looks.
The body shape and movements of a snake are highly optimized for traversing over all kinds of terrain and surfaces. It can move on slopes and incline over all sorts of jagged surfaces. It can also squeeze into restrictive and tight spaces. Based on these characteristics, snake robots already have an existence, but they consume huge amounts of energy and quickly overheat. The Scalybot 2.0, inspired from the study of more than 20 varieties of snakes, is a ‘two-link’, all-terrain snake. It may not resemble a snake in looks but it definitely optimizes on the movements like one. Utilizing the rectilinear motion of the snakes, it moves its ‘scales’ in a wave sequence that helps it to literally pull itself forward.
The study of the group dynamics of the fire ant swarms has led to another great idea. None of the fire ants have the ability to swim individually, but they form large swarms and shape themselves into a big ball that easily floats over the surface of water. This has triggered the inspiration to make tiny robots that can navigate the toughest of terrains by assembling autonomously into larger formations. This synergy can be used to overcome obstacles that present themselves as inaccessible for individuals.
The crux of the research lies in energy efficiency. The success of such a project will see future development of robots with green jobs. For instance, we could have robots that design and fabricate solar cells, do environmental monitoring and necessary remediation, or even substitute human beings in potentially dangerous work like the maintenance of wind turbines.
Studying nature and incorporating her principles and methods will definitely be the next big step in robotics. We need to see as to how well we are able to imitate nature in this endeavor.