Robots Still Lag Behind Animals in Foot Races

In a new study, a team of engineers from the U.S. and Canada analyzed data from many studies and found that in almost all cases, animals like cheetahs, cockroaches and humans can outrun their robot counterparts. The findings show robots have not caught up to biology when it comes to moving efficiently.

Animals Excel at Adaptable Locomotion

The researchers concluded the failure of robots to outpace animals is not due to issues with any single part, like batteries or motors. Rather, engineers have not yet mastered making all the parts work together efficiently, the way animals seamlessly integrate power, sensing, control and movement.

“Animals are, in some sense, the embodiment of this ultimate design principle—a system that functions really well together,” said study co-author Kaushik Jayaram, a roboticist at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Jayaram’s lab houses creatures like wolf spiders to study their remarkable speed and agility in complex environments. He hopes to one day build robots that emulate their extraordinary locomotion abilities.

Hurdles in Robotic Design

Designing robots that run is complicated because running itself is complex. Robots like HAMR-Jr, a cockroach-inspired bot the size of a penny, can sprint as fast as a cheetah but have limited side-to-side motion and struggle on rough terrain. Real cockroaches easily scurry over various surfaces and through tight spaces.

Surprisingly, the study found few of the core subsystems in robots, like power and actuation, are inferior to animal equivalents. However, optimizing one aspect of a robot, like speed, often means compromising on other abilities.

“At the system level, robots are not as good,” Jayaram said. “We run into inherent design trade-offs.”

To build more animal-like robots, Jayaram believes engineers need to pursue designs with “functional subunits” that integrate power, sensing, control and movement, similar to how muscles work. His lab’s spider-inspired CLARI robot, with its modular self-contained leg design, is one step in this direction.

“Nature is a really useful teacher,” Jayaram said. With further bio-inspired engineering advances, perhaps robots will one day give animals a run for their money.

Keyword/phrase: bio-inspired robot design

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