6 March 2014
About the creepiest of all the land-roaming creatures is the spider. But it only makes sense that, with 8 legs, the spider would be among the most sure-footed animals on earth. And sure-footedness was just what researchers were looking for in a new search and rescue robot. So, it’s no surprise that they picked the spider as their model.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation, in Stuttgart, Germany, have developed a new weapon in the search and rescue arena: a robotic spider. In stark contrast to the real eight-legged arachnid’s creepy reputation, its robotic incarnation is not just your friend, but your potential rescuer. These spiders can, for example, creep into the smallest spaces in collapsed buildings and provide location information about trapped victims as well as damage and air quality assessments.
These ‘bots are about as friendly and helpful as real spiders are not. But, personality aside, in terms of the mechanics of operation, these robots are really a lot like the actual spider. Research groups throughout the world have turned to biomimicry in designing the last few generations of robots. That is, the robots of the future are being designed not just to imitate, but to function just like, plain old biological organisms.
In old sci-fi movies, robots of the future were visualized as almost anti-human and anti-organic. In other words, they were made to look like everything that plain old living creatures weren’t — sporting sleek metal and glass surfaces with an enormous bulk and weight carried hither and yon on wheels. However, when it came to building the real thing, these sleek-looking innovations turned out not to be . . . innovations.
We “organics” got the last laugh, most recently, watching Mars Rovers continually getting stuck because, even on slightly rough terrain, wheels don’t work as well as feet. In terms of design, the bulky, weighty robots have been left behind because their very bulk and weight made it difficult for them to move freely and to perform flexibly enough to accomplish a wide variety of tasks.
For most current robotic applications, biomimicry, imitation of real-life organic creatures, is the order of the day. And it makes sense. Every time we see a really creepy spider, we worry that one of those creepy things will find its way into our home. And they do — in spite of considerable obstacles. What better creature to imitate if your goal is to rescue someone in a collapsed building? Why try to figure out a new way to do what spiders have been able to do since . . . forever.
Even better, this spider can be produced inexpensively using a 3D printer. The resulting Robo-Spider is disposable (just in case you don’t want these critters crawling around the house after they’ve done their job). Rather disturbingly, the Robo-Spider moves just like its biological counterpart and, if it has to, it can even jump — leaving me with vaguely disturbing mental image.
Also, BAE Systems, a British defense company, is working on robotic spiders (and dragonflies and snakes) to aid soldiers in combat zones. These robo-spiders would play the role of scouts crawling through potentially dangerous areas and relaying precise reconnaissance information in situations too dangerous for human beings.