Spirit animals: 9 revolutionary robots inspired by real-world creatures

We’re constantly amazed by the ingenuity shown by roboticists around the globe. But when it comes to solving complex problems in the real world, today’s top robot builders often draw on the natural world for inspiration: giving them millions of years of evolution to borrow from.

This nature-inspired approach to problem solving and design is called “biomimicry,” and it’s resulted in some incredibly impressive robots, capable of astonishing feats. Here are nine of our favorites.

An ostrich robot

As pretty much the living embodiment of dinosaurs (seriously, check out those legs!), ostriches are pretty awesome. This ostrich-inspired robo mechanism created by researchers at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition is pretty darn cool in its own way, too — thanks to its minimalist running mechanism.

Based on the kind of elliptical trainer mechanism you’ll find in virtually every gym, the team’s ostrich robot eschews sensors and a computer in favor of a self-balancing design that requires only the motor of an RC car radio controller. Using this, it can run on a treadmill at 12 mph — and even slow down or speed up as required.

The solution could help create two-legged or four-legged sprinter robots which are able to deal with a variety of terrains, without having to break their stride. “Large parts of the land surface of the planet are not accessible to wheeled or tracked vehicles in any meaningful way,” researcher Johnny Godowski told Digital Trends. “This work is about opening up new possibilities.”

Falcon robot

From one intimidating bird to another, Clear Flight Solutions’ Robobirds are falcon-inspired robots designed to look as close to the real thing as possible. Why? Because the hope is that having robotic birds of prey circling airports will be enough to stop real birds from straying into airplane flight paths.

“The Robirds are robotic birds of prey that fly just like a real bird, through flapping wing motion,” Wessel Straatman, an R&D engineer at Clear Flight Solutions, told Digital Trends. “By mimicking their natural counterparts through silhouette and behavior, they are indistinguishable from real-life birds of prey to other birds. Birds instinctively react to the presence of birds of prey, making it less attractive for them to come to that area.”

Sloth robot

When you think of exciting animals to robotify, the sloth doesn’t immediately speed to the top of our list. But that probably explains why we’re stuck writing about groundbreaking robots, as opposed to building them.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology took inspiration from the tree-dwelling movement of sloths to create an energy-efficient agricultural robot that’s capable of hanging from highwires to monitor crops from above.

“There was no easy solution to this [monitoring] problem, as wheeled robots were likely to get stuck, and flying robots typically have flight times only in the tens of minutes,” Jonathan Rogers, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, told Digital Trends. “So we developed [this] so-called brachiating robot, or swinging robot, that can traverse elevated wires above the plant rows. Many agricultural settings already have some type of elevated wire, or they can be easily installed. Our robot can swing along a wire, or between wires, allowing it to monitor an entire field using sensors installed between the arms.”

Manta Ray robot

Not all robots are designed to work on land. The National University of Singapore’s brilliantly named “MantaDroid” takes a page out of the manta ray’s efficient swimming playbook to create a robot that displays an impressive amount of agility and speed in the water.

The MantaDroid robot is the size of a juvenile manta ray, with a wingspan of 63.4 cm and a body length of 35 cm. It is capable of swimming at a speed of 2 body lengths per second, which makes it impressively zippy. Its most unique feature is its flexible fin mechanism, which uses just one actuator per pectoral fin to let it interact naturally with the fluid dynamics of the water.

“We see MantaDroid as a potential long-term continuous underwater surveying machine, which could be useful for maritime industries, environmental agencies, and search and rescue organizations,” Professor Chew Chee-Meng, who helped lead the project, told Digital Trends. “For example, it can be used for underwater inspection tasks, as well as for collection of hydrographic data. With swarm intelligence, multiple MantaDroids [could] also be deployed to concurrently perform search operations, such as looking for lost divers or sunken objects in the sea.”

Octopus robot

Speaking of underwater robots, how about this effort from Italy’s Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, which totally looks like the robot H.P. Lovecraft would have created had he worked in tech?

Part of the currently happening “soft robotics” revolution, the team’s robotic octopus comprises a squishy, soft body with no rigid parts. The robot has been successfully tested in the Mediterranean Sea, where it showed off its innovative locomotion — involving moving by drawing in liquid and then expelling it from its body, or using its eight legs to clamber across the sea bed.

Snake robot

Snakes don’t exactly have a whole lot of limbs to work with, but that doesn’t make snake robots any less multi-purpose. The Guardian S, a waterproof snakebot created by the Utah-based robotics company Sarcos, more than demonstrates that point.

Guardian S is capable of moving on virtually any type of terrain, crawling through thin pipes, and even climbing up stairs or on certain walls, thanks to its magnetized body. As it travels, the snakebot gathers data from various sensors, which include infrared, radiation, gas and vibration detection, GPS, accelerometer, 3D mapping, and 360-degree video with low-light capabilities.

It’s not the only snake robot that’s slithered onto the scene, either. A laser-wielding giant robot snake has been used to help decommission an old nuclear power plant in England, a snakelike (well, technically eel-like) robot aims to live underwater and repair undersea infrastructure, and surgeons plan to use snake robots to enter the body to aim with surgery. By crawling through your nose or uthera, obvs!

Gecko robot

Biomimicry doesn’t have to mean building a robot that looks exactly like its inspiration. In fact, some of the most intriguing examples don’t bear any obvious physical resemblance to the creature that inspired them.

That’s certainly the case with a space cleanup tool designed by Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that’s modelled on the gecko — or one part of the gecko, at least. With around 500,000 pieces of manmade space junk orbiting Earth at frankly terrifying speeds, the aim of this cleanup gripper is to able to grasp large objects, weighing as much as 370kg, and remove them.

As it turns out, space’s inconvenient lack of atmosphere means that regular suction cups won’t work. Geckos, however, manage to stick to surfaces by using tiny hairs on their feet. This material isn’t sticky, but will strongly adhere to a surface when force is applied. The idea of applying this to space-age trash pickup is unique — and owes its existence to everyone’s favorite eyeball-licking lizard.

Cockroach robot

Ever heard the saying that, when the apocalypse hits, it’ll be just cockroaches and Twinkies that will survive? Well, in lieu of a Twinkie robot (although someone should totally build one), ultra hardy cockroaches have been the model for several biomimicking bots.

Harvard’s HAMR robot — short for Harvard Ambulatory MicroRobot — is one such creation; designed to scamper along the floor at high speed for exploration purposes. Another recent cockroach robot project can switch from running along flat surfaces to assuming a climbing position without slowing down along the way.

“While cockroaches are one of nature’s most revolting animals, they can teach us important design principles,” Kaushik Jayaram, a researcher on the latter project from Harvard’s Wyss Institute, told Digital Trends. “There are among the fastest animals, running over 50 body lengths per second,equivalent to 200 mph when scaled up to human size. They are highly capable: can climb up walls, race along ceilings, ingress into narrow crevices, rapidly change direction by turning or disappear rapidly by swinging under ledges.”

Dog robot

Last but certainly not least on our list are perhaps the world’s most famous animal-inspired robot: the canine-esque BigDog and Spot robots created by Boston Dynamics, the group previously owned by Google (today by Softbank Group).

These durable robots are capable of running at impressively high speeds and could be useful for transporting heavy goods around. Or, you know, just being a faithful pet to Skynet once the machines take over!