State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Nature-Inspired Robots

Cheetah_cub_close-up_crop (1)
Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim

Scientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland created a new breed of robots to advance their research in robotic movements.  The cheetah-cub robot has three-segment legs and prances across the room on its motorized muscles and spring tendons.  While slower than a house cat, the robot covers seven times its body length in one second, faster than robots four times its size, according to the International Journal of Robotics Research.

But Swiss scientists are not the only ones enthralled by the way the natural world can be recreated in the lab. Recent M.S. in Sustainability Management graduate Adiel Gavish (’13) utilizes nature and its complex systems to devise sustainable business models. As the Founder of BiomimicryNYC, Gavish formulates innovative ways to better the planet using nature as her role model.

Biomimicry is “a design discipline that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies” ( And the cheetah-cub robot is not the first animal to bound across laboratory floors. Scientists have produced a “mechanical menagerie” of robots that mimic four legged mammals, compact insects, and everything in between.  Here are a few in the limelight:

The Fly-Size Drone

The housefly flaps its wings about 120 times per second.  The carbon-fiber fly, designed by a robotics team at Harvard University, is so small and light that the only way to power and control it is by a hair-thin cord tied to its body.  A wireless model may arrive in a few years.

Once the fly takes off, it could “preform search and rescue in hazardous environments, monitor chemicals in the atmosphere, or even pollinate crops like bees.”

The Snakebot

Multiple actuated joints enable robotic snakes to slither into environments too dangerous for people.  Sensors attached can track radioactivity or chemical levels. Snakebots can also carry cameras and slide under collapsed buildings, into the human body to preform surgeries, or even diffuse bombs.

3-D Printed Spiders

German scientists have designed a hydraulic-driven robot using 3-D printing that creeps around on four legs while keeping its other four free for climbing, just like real spiders. The cutting-edge robot can crawl into a hazardous chemical accident and collect pictures and data.

The Robofish

New schools of robotic fish can map their locations as they take water samples and analyze the results in seconds. They can then relay their data to other robofish and people on shore.  Robofish are valuable in surveying water pollution levels they help facilitate damage control swiftly.

The Nano Hummingbird 

Photo by Steve Jurvetson

With wings just 6.5 inches long, this robot can zip outside and withstand 5 mph winds.  Weighing just two-thirds of an ounce (less than a AA battery), the robobird can hover for eight minutes and fly about 11 miles per hour. The robot was built by AeroVironment, a part of DARPA’s Nano Air Vehicle (NAV) program.

The Robot Ant

While their individual IQ levels are low, ants possess incredible brainpower when they team up in a swarm. Ants navigate through mazes “by the path of least resistance.” When one locates the least complex path, the ant flags it for its fellow colony members with chemical markers.

Scientists at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Swarm Lab created robotic ants that use lights to mark simple paths discovered. The ants can unlock significant studies into collective intelligence, generating new ways to think about how we build our cities, shipping routes, and cell tower networks.

The Chameleon-Like Robot

Under DARPA’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation program, Harvard has created a rubber chameleon robot that changes colors through plastic tubes carrying dye from its control system. The chameleon robot blends into its surroundings and is also glow in the dark. The robot will help scientists research animal behaviors like camouflaging.

The Giant RoboJelly 

Photo by Sam Howzit

Cyro, Virginia Tech University’s invention, is designed to use relatively little energy, like a real jellyfish, and weighs as much as a man. Although it is still being tweaked, the robot, which is partially funded by the U.S. Navy could someday “perform surveillance, monitor the ocean environment, map the ocean floor, trace currents, or even clean oil spills.”

The Stickybot Gecko

Scientists from institutions across the country have collaborated to produce a robotic gecko that takes scaling vertical walls to the next level. The robot uses Van der Waals force, which allows its toes to stick to surfaces as tough as vertical glass and detach smoothly as it climbs.

Ayala Magder is an Intern at the Earth Institute. She is a Macaulay Honors College student at Queens College majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in Digital Art.

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