In Pictures: Beastly robotic animals

What a zoo! These mechanical creatures run, crawl, swim and fly not much unlike the real things

  • Ratty Robot This ratty robot can really freak out real white lab rats, and that’s the goal of researchers at Waseda University in Japan. Their WR-4 robot is designed to stress out lab rats, so that researchers can learn about how stress affects humans.

  • Just try catching this tuna in your net The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate is funding development of an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) designed to resemble a tuna, dubbed the BIOSwimmer. The tuna has a natural body framework that solves some of the propulsion and maneuverability problems of conventional UUVs. The robo-fish could be used to inspect voids of ships, inspect harbors and carry out search missions. Boston Engineering's Advanced Systems Group is developing the BIOSwimmer for the department. "It's designed to support a variety of tactical missions and with its interchangeable sensor payloads and reconfigurable Operator Controls, can be optimized on a per-mission basis," says Mike Rufo of Boston Engineering.

  • March of the robotic penguins A BBC documentary that began airing in February 2013 – “Penguins: Spy in the Huddle” – gets up close with various types of penguins via robotic penguin spycams, including the rockhopper penguincam here. Other spycams were disguised as eggs and chunks of snow. A number of spycams also met their makers, washed away by surf and taken away by birds.

  • Long lasting Cockroach-bot North Carolina State University's iBionicS lab has taken the wireless sensor to a new level by latching one on to a cockroach and remotely controlling it. “Our aim was to determine whether we could create a wireless biological interface with cockroaches, which are robust and able to infiltrate small spaces,” says Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical engineering. “Ultimately, we think this will allow us to create a mobile web of smart sensors that uses cockroaches to collect and transmit information, such as finding survivors in a building that’s been destroyed by an earthquake." The little electronic backpack fitted onto the Madagascar hissing cockroaches and featuring a microcontroller interacts with the insects' antennae and sensory organs on their abdomens to direct movement.

  • Moth love From the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics: “A small, two-wheeled robot has been driven by a male silkmoth to track down the sex pheromone usually given off by a female. The robot, created by researchers from the University of Tokyo, has been used to characterize the silkmoth's tracking behaviors and it is hoped that these can be applied to other autonomous robots so they can track down smells, and subsequent sources, of environmental spills and leaks when fitted with highly sensitive sensors.”

  • Robofish swims and swims and swims Michigan State University’s Xiaobo Tan, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and his team have upgraded his robotic fish so that it can glide through water almost indefinitely all the while collecting data that can help lakes and rivers cleaner. No tail flapping by this fish – called Gliding Robot ACE -- means it is slow, but doesn’t wear down batteries.

  • Is this nuts or what? A robotic squirrel might be pretty far down on most people’s lists of Most Wanted Robotic Animal, and in fact San Diego State University’s robo-squirrel was cited last year by a U.S. Senator ranting about wasteful government spending. But the researchers defended the NSF-funded project, saying it is helpful in teaching biology. University of New Hampshire researchers have also sung the praises of robotic squirrels for similar purposes.

  • More robot buzz Harvard researchers received a $10 million grant back in 2009 to create a colony of flying robotic bees, or RoboBees to among other things, spur innovation in ultra-low-power computing and electronic “smart” sensors; and refine coordination algorithms to manage multiple, independent machines. The 5-year, National Science Foundation-funded Micro Air Vehicles Project could lead to a better understanding of how to artificially mimic the unique collective behavior and intelligence of a bee colony and advance work on the construction of small-scale flying mechanical devices. (via Network World’s Michael Cooney)

  • Dragonflies: If they’re good enough for the Air Force… Georgia Tech researchers, already backed by $1 million in Air Force funding to build robotic dragonfly drones, reached out to the public for more funds last year via their TechJect business and startup generator Indiegogo. Those contributing could get their very own lightweight and robotic dragonflies for prices starting at $99, enabling them to do everything from spy to shoot pictures.

  • Robotic kissing pigs: Now don’t snort Kissinger the robotic pig is designed to let you dish out long-distance smooches via Skype. The pig’s lips are sensitive to a human’s lips. This robot from Lovotics has clearly inspired the greatest headlines of any of these animal robots, such as “Wow, First Base Never Looked So Sad: Kissinger, The Robotic Long-Distance Kiss Messenger.”

  • Goats and boats This robotic mountain goat serves a very serious job in Japan: It gobbles up losing tickets from people betting on boat races in Tokyo. The goat, which “eats up your frustrations,” reportedly has ticket-detecting sensors in its mouth.

  • Robotic Spider crawls out of 3D printer Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering have designed a mobile spiderlike robot that’s based on the hydraulically operated limbs of real spiders. This lightweight and disposable robot was created using a 3D printing process and is designed to explore terrain that is beyond human reach.

  • Cheetah Robot is no plodder Cheetah Robot from Boston Dynamics is a fast-running quadruped developed by Boston Dynamics with funding from DARPA. It runs up to 28.3 MPH, about 0.5 MPH faster than Olympian Usain Bolt's fastest 20 meter split. This version of the Cheetah Robot runs on a treadmill with offboard power. Testing on an untethered outdoor version starts in 2013.

  • Planet of the Ape heads? This Kickstarter project sought funding for a mobile app and RoboBonobo, a robot that would help humans talk to Bonobos, a kind of ape.

  • SmartBird takes off The herring gull inspired German company Festo’s Bionic Learning Network researchers to develop a robotic bird that can take off and rise by flapping its wings. The SmartBird’s carbon-fiber structure weighs just 450 grams.

  • Robotic Bat Wing takes flight Researchers at Brown University have developed a robotic bat wing that is providing information about dynamics of flapping flight in real dog-faced fruit bats. The robot is designed to flap while attached to a force transducer in a wind tunnel. By measuring the power output of the motors that control the robot's seven movable joints, researchers can evaluate the energy required to execute wing movements. Data could aid the design of small flapping aircraft. The research was funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

  • MAN! Here's a bonus slide. Having watched my fair share of nature shows, I know every episode needs to end with some commentary on MAN! Here are some robots that might spook aspiring actors, as they do their best Keanu Reeves impersonations and act alongside real humans in a play out of Japan that involves a fatally sick woman who talks up the meaning of life with a robot and a widower who converses with his robot servant.

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