Sunday, March 16, 2014

Where Can We Use Biologically Inspired Robots?

Roboticists watch creatures in the natural world with a great deal of envy. The nature has endowed its creatures with a mesmerizing array of locomotion and manipulation abilities. Here is a representative list of remarkable capabilities on display every day in the natural world: a cheetah sprinting through an uneven terrain with tall grass, a falcon diving a great distance to catch a prey, an ant carrying a leaf that weighs five times its body weight, a monkey jumping from one tree to another while carrying a baby, and a lizard running on the water.
Robot designers try to take inspiration from the nature and try to create robots that attempt to match impressive locomotion and manipulation abilities found in the nature. Examples include robots that use legs to negotiate a rugged terrain, robots that fly by flapping their wings, robots that swim by undulating their bodies, and robots that crawl by extending and contracting their bodies.

Obviously designing and building biologically inspired robots is a lot of fun.  They offer a great excuse for grown men and women to build their own toys and play with them (and get paid while doing it!).  They can also serve as useful tools to discuss and teach science and mathematics. Learning about the conservation of momentum is much more captivating when watching YouTube videos of gazelles making sharp turns to escape hungry cheetahs. Biologically inspired robots have also helped many movies mint millions of dollars at the box office. 

Often people ask me what are the real (translation: non-fun) applications for biologically inspired robots. This post attempts to answer this question.    

The majority of biologically inspired robotics research is focused on creating robots that can go where traditional robots cannot go. These robots are expected to enable new capabilities in search, rescue, recovery, surveillance, reconnaissance, inspection, and exploration applications. Hopefully, these robots will help us in saving lives, enhancing safety and security, and learning about remote places in not so distant future. Taking inspiration from the nature is also helping us in creating robots that are much more energy efficient and robust.

Biological inspiration is also helping in the design of the next generation prostheses. Hopefully, these devices will be neurally-connected and feel much more natural than a conventional prosthesis.    

Where do we go from here? How can we expand the markets for the biologically inspired robots from the traditional applications described above? In this post, I want to exclusively focus on non-defense related applications. Here is a list of offbeat applications for biologically inspired robots.

  • Tiny Swimmers Inspired by Bacteria:  Submicron swimming robots inspired from bacteria can have many potential applications in medical diagnostic and therapeutic applications.    

  • Pets/Companions: Robot pets might be a good option for people who are unable to take care of the real pets or people who are allergic to them.  For example, robot pets might provide companionship for elderly individuals who want to live alone. They might also be useful as guide-dogs for people with visual impairments.  

  • Actors in Biology Experiments: Understanding how animals behave with each other requires an ability to perform controlled experiments.  Controlling the animal behavior during experiments is very hard. Having realistic robots that can fool animals will help in conducting experiments with a higher degree of control. For example, robots can be made to look and sound like birds to help us understand the mating habits and rituals of birds.

  • Animal Surrogates for Treating Phobias: Many people suffer from acute phobias involving animals. One way to treat the phobia is by exposing people with phobia to real animals in a controlled way. Accomplishing this is very challenging. Robots that can serve as animal surrogates can help in making further advances this area. 

  • Bouncers for Preventing Bird Trespassing: Birds can significantly reduce yields on farms by eating seeds and damaging plants. Birds can also pose threats to airplanes as they take off and land on airports. Farmers and airport administrators can use robots that look like large predatory birds and hence scare smaller birds.   

  • Avatars for Humans: I am sure that there have been cases when you wished that you had a clone who can make an appearance on your behalf. Robotic avatar might be a way to represent yourself without getting tangled in the ethical dilemma associated with human cloning. A chef might want to have multiple robotic avatars to serve a large number of customers without compromising his/her signature style. Advances in self-driving cars will enable your robotic avatar to go where you are needed without you needing to leave the comfort of your home. You can basically deliver your expertise via your robotic avatar. 

  • Farmhands: Robot swarms can help in picking ripe fruits and berries with minimal damage to the tree/plant.  They can also inspect difficult to reach portions of plants and crops for disease and infection.   

  • Training Partners for Athletes: Athletes require intensive training. Finding good training partners for elite athletes is very hard. Hopefully, robots can play this role.    
Many advances will be needed in robotics related areas before any of the above mentioned applications becomes a reality, but it is not too early to start thinking about them.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on new markets and applications for biologically inspired robots.