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Robots do not need extra add-ons in order to take over the world. But arms and legs certainly do help.

Student engineers at the University of Southern California are turning to nature to design and build bots that mimic the movement of animals. "Roboticists watch creatures in the natural world with a great deal of envy," said Satyandra Gupta, director of USC’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing.

"Taking inspiration from nature offers new possibilities for realising novel robots," he continued. "As such, bio-inspired robotics has emerged as an important specialisation within the field of robotics."

The ability to walk, slither, fly or swim gives machines a leg up over stationary androids; these creature-like bots can save lives, improve security, and explore remote locations.

The ability to adapt to biological attributes, for these robots, can also lead to more robust or energy-efficient systems. As part of USC's undergraduate course, Gupta demonstrates the fundamentals of traditional robots and the growing importance of biologically inspired design.

Pupils are then tasked with building and programming their own animal-influenced robot, like the four-legged cyborg developed by Daiming Yang, Chenchen Huang, and Shijing Lu (which can be seen in the picture above).

This cyborg robot was inspired by the movement of a cat, "unlike dogs or horses, cats walk with their front legs bent forward rather than backward, which may create "singularities" in robotic motion analysis," said Yang.

Another group devised a robot that walks sideways, like a crab. "Our team tried to capture the passively stable dynamics (series of falls) that crabs make when they walk slowly," said member Pamela Denny, whose teammates included Mary Bessell and Yan Zhang.

"The most difficult task was putting the robot together and removing all the friction from the joints," she explained. "This was a very detailed and complex task as there were 12 joints to set, align, and adjust."

Last month, nine teams presented their semester-long projects, demonstrating each robot’s unique ability by moving down a track 30 times longer than the length of its body.

"Our team was so happy to create a crab that actually worked," Denny said. "It was a lot of fun, and I highly recommend the class."

You can have a look at the video of the robot in action on the School of Engineering's site


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