What do you get when you cross a robot with the tail of a leaping lizard? A "Tailbot."
Research published Wednesday in the journal Nature shows how scientists at the University of California, Berkeley developed an active "tail" for a robotic car called Tailbot. When Tailbot jumps a ramp, its tail stops it from pitching forward and tumbling end-over-end to the ground.
Tailbot is just the latest step forward in the area of bio-inspired robotics, says chief researcher Bob Full, professor of integrative biology.
Full's team noticed that when agama lizards jump, they move their tails to stop their heads from pitching forward.
"We showed for the first time that lizards swing their tails up or down to counteract rotation of their bodies, keeping them stable," Full said. They then applied this idea to their robot.
The research also bolstered a 40-year-old hypothesis that two-legged theropod dinosaurs stabilized themselves with their tails as they ran.
Stabilizing tails could improve the next generation of highly maneuverable search-and-rescue robots or wall-crawling maintenance 'bots, say experts.
"There's a huge benefit in terms of being able to have a relatively small, lightweight, high-performance machine that you could attach to a building or a tree and have it reliably climb that surface," said Alfred Rizzi, chief robotics scientist at Boston Dynamics, an MIT spinoff firm that develops robots for the U.S. military.
"More robots will come from this," Full predicted.
Full is not your average science guy. Years ago, before he was enticed by the nexus of biology and machines, Full tried out for the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor league baseball team in Niagara Falls, New York. Baseball didn't pan out, but Full was always fascinated by motion, which lead him toward engineering and physical science.
After academic success, Hollywood came calling. Full consulted with Pixar Studios to create accurate insect movements for the 1998 animated film "A Bug's Life."
He's now working on another Hollywood project, which he says he's not at liberty to discuss. Very hush-hush.
"You'll see it. It will come out, and it's pretty interesting," Full said. "And it is related to this paper."
Bio-inspired robotics, he says, is a relatively young field that's "about to explode." And it's not just lizards that are inspiring robot designs. Researchers around the world are seeking robotic bio-inspiration from four-legged animals including "hoofed and cat-like creatures," Rizzi said.
But Rizzi says there are still some big hurdles. Developing a robot with the mobility and physical awareness of an average 5-year-old child would require "building machines that have enough inputs that they can actually tell what's happening around them in order to reliably navigate and operate in relatively complex environments," Rizzi said.
Someday, bio-inspired robotics may replace wheelchairs. "Individuals who were viewed as potentially disabled could potentially move to have superhuman powers if they attached the appropriate things to their bodies," Full said. "It's a very interesting question about how we're going to interact with these technologies of the future to become far more effective."
Attaching robotic equipment to our bodies to give us superhuman powers? That has a Hollywood ring to it -- as in the film "Iron Man."
Are bio-inspired robots destined to be a part of our future?
"In the big picture sense, I think we are very close to some very important breakthroughs," Rizzi said.
However, a lot of the timing surrounding the development of robots for consumers rests in the hands of commerce, according to roboticists. Although the list of personal robot manufacturers is growing, consumer choices are limited. The company that brought us the Roomba floor-cleaning machine, iRobot, has been around for more than 20 years. But most of us don't have two-legged or four-legged robot servants running around the house. Looking for a companion 'bot? A Genibo Robot Dog companion will run you about $1,650 at RobotShop.com, which warns about Genibo's "mischievous and charming personality."
Robotics experts acknowledge that technology is advancing so quickly that it's beyond the ability of the business world to embrace it fast enough.
"I can't quite predict when we'll see some of these things in the stores, but a lot of the technological capability is being developed right now by a whole bunch of people around the world in the bio-inspired design area," Full said. "It's a very exciting time."