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Robotics Team Takes Lessons from Natural World

A robotics team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is tackling real world problems by studying the natural world for inspiration.

In the university's NanoRobotics Lab mechanical engineering graduate student Mike Murphy takes his cues from nature. Murphy's guide is the gecko, a tropical lizard with sticky feet. He says it's the millions of microscopic hairs on the gecko's footpads, which actually connect with the molecular bonds of the surface material, that give the lizard its remarkable climbing ability. "By studying these animals we can create synthetic versions of their adhesives and put them on robots."

The tri-legged climbing Waalbot fits into the palm of Murphy's hand. Its microscopic polymer foot hairs give it some of the gecko's climbing power, although, Murphy, who has positioned a crash pad for the robot's fall, says his version is on a steep learning curve. The Waalbot can adhere better to a smooth surface than a rough one he says and adds that another challenge is keeping the adhesive pads clean. "Our adhesive pads pick up contaminants from the climbing surfaces."

Geckos don't have that problem.

The robot is designed to carry a payload, which Murphy says could be a camera or a mobile relay network for a computer system. He envisions applications that range from inspection and surveillance to work in space. "On the space shuttle, you could have a robot that climbs around, looks for damage and even repairs it."

Murphy's Waalbot shares lab space with Water Runner. This robot is modeled after the speedy basilisk lizard, which walks on water at speeds of 1.5 meters per second in the rain forests of Central and South America. Graduate student Steven Floyd says the basilisk stays afloat in the way it slaps and strokes the water. "The idea behind it is that the basilisk lizard can run on water and run on land and it uses similar motion for both."

The boxy-looking, remote-controlled robot has a motor in each of its four skinny legs. Floyd says while Water Runner would make a great toy, its ability to operate on land and water broadens its use especially in partially flooded environments and marshland.

Graduate student Onur Ozcan from Turkey works nearby on Water Strider. He says this robotic prototype is fashioned after the pond skimmer, an insect that can glide over water with little drag or friction. "If we can mimic this behavior with this tiny robot then it can be a big success for us. We can use it to measure the quality of water on dams or on any water source."

Ozcan says as he works on mechanical problems in the NanoRobotics Lab he and his colleagues continue to marvel at the beauty of the natural world and the mechanics of the animals that inhabit it.