Check out 10 amazing robots inspired by nature

10 Feb 2016

The robotics industry is motoring on at an incredible pace, however, it has largely cottoned on to one, clear, idea: nature knows best. So, rather than ignoring our environment, researchers are looking to it for inspiration.

We love a good robotics story at and today was no different when we got wind of a new chameleon-inspired robot that can change colour with its surroundings. Why? Well, camouflage, of course.

It’s so cool, it got us thinking, what other robots out there are heavily influenced by nature? And what type of species should avid roboticists look at?

1. Chameleon camouflage

Engineers at the Wuhan University in China 3D printed a bot covered in displays that produce respective colours, after looking for a way to create some form of invisibility cloak. The chameleon’s camouflage technique, they decided, was far more achievable.

“The mechanical chameleon possesses every fundamental feature that is needed for realistic active camouflage,” reads the research paper in ACS Publications.

Guoping Wang and co used a combination of bimetallic nanodot arrays and electrochemical bias, which creates the camouflage, or “plasmonic modulation”, to be precise. “Importantly, our approach permits real-time light manipulation readily matchable to the colour setting in a given environment.”

They do this so they can create a robot that can offer “dynamic colour” responses to cover almost its entire visible region.

2. Chameleon tongue

So, we’ll stick with the chameleon, but change tack a little. While the above was all about appearance, this is all about tongues. Festo – which will feature heavily in this piece – looked at different gripping techniques, a hugely difficult area for robots as dexterity, quite often, is not a strong point for them.

To catch prey, chameleons’ tongues act like suction devices, grabbing flies in an adhesive, form-fitting, interlocking hold.

To replicate this, Festo’s gripper is made from an elastic, silicone cap that adapts to the object it is targeting. It can pick up multiple things, holding many at a time, and reacts to pretty much any shape.

This could be incredibly useful for a range of industries, from automated picking businesses to user aids for those with physical difficulties.

3. Cockroach protectors

Next up we look at what, perhaps, a chameleon would happily dine on: cockroaches. Only this week, CRAM (Compressible Robot and Articulated Mechanisms) was revealed, looking like an armadillo, acting like a cockroach.

With a view to using smaller, durable robots in disaster zones where flat terrain and solid surroundings are rarely guaranteed, Berkley researchers thought of the invincible critters that haunt many an apartment dweller in the US.

So, they put a bunch of cockroaches through multiple obstacle courses, testing their ability to walk under extreme pressure and through even the slightest of gaps.

They learned that cockroaches can squeeze, under 900-times their own body pressure, through gaps smaller then two stacked pennies, and manipulate their legs to get out of even the tightest bind.

With that information on hand, they made CRAM.

4. Strider, a water-skipping masterpiece

Sticking with the insect theme, researchers in Korea decided to make one of the lightest robots possible, to allow it walk on water.

Much like a strider, the resulting robot utilises something called a torque reversal catapult, which helps its long legs move exactly the right amount without cracking through the water’s surface.

5. Ants, ants everywhere

Back to Festo’s magnificence, with this colony of robot ants, which charge themselves up when they need to, something that really impressed us last year.

The BionicANTs mimic the behaviour of ants working together to move an object. They communicate with each other to ensure they never crash together, autonomously deciding where best to position themselves to get the task done.

They also stroll over to the perimeter of their working area to avail of the self-charge points, pressing their antennae against the wall. There’s pretty much no stopping them.

6. Float like a butterfly

Festo’s final inclusion is certainly the most dramatic, aesthetic robot on our list: the eMotionButterfly. These masterpieces are incredibly light, fly in packs, using GPS and infrared cameras coordinate their swarm.

“The eMotionButterflies impress with an intelligently employed mechanical system and the smallest possible power units in the tightest space,” says the company. “The reduced use of materials enables the true-to-nature flying behaviour.”

It’s pretty exceptional that these devices are small and light enough to ensure flight through the wafting of wings.

7. Sting like a bees

Okay, looking a little higher in nature, literally, we find bees. RoboBees were developed way back in 2013 by Harvard researchers, and are a bit limited in their bee-like capabilities.

That’s largely down to the complexities of powering up such tiny robots, with no room for a battery or a computer on such tiny structures. But, with an added ability to swim, now, these might be the first dual-species robots of note.

8. Swimming with the fishes

Nanoengineers at the University of California have utilised innovative 3D-printing technology to manufacture fish-shaped microrobots – dubbed microfish – that may one day be used in detoxification, targeted drug delivery, or even surgery.

How do they work? Well, as they are layered onto digital micromirror array devices, the simple answer is magnets. They can, in theory, swim around the bloodstream, hunting out toxins and helping us treat and monitor patient recovery.

“Another exciting possibility we could explore is to encapsulate medicines inside the microfish and use them for directed drug delivery,” said Jinxing Li, a co-author of the study.

9. It’s a dog’s life

Spot the dog is perhaps the most recognisable of these nature-inspired robots as, well, it managed to get an awful lot of media coverage. One of Boston Dynamics’ many creations, it’s a headless, trotting robot that lands more on the creepy side of pets, than cute.

The four-legged 160lb (72.5kg) robot was the fourth iteration of Boston Dynamics’ four-legged machines that started with BigDog just over 10 years ago.

Much of Spot’s components are similar to its older cousins, including its spinning sensor head and hydraulic legs, which have been improved upon again to allow it to withstand some of the strongest kicks and easily climb stairs.

10. Or maybe a cheetah’s

Of course, there are more large animals to copy, so why not look at some bigger, quicker predators? That’s what MIT researchers did with Cheetah, the first four-legged robot to autonomously jump over obstacles.

While it may have all the grace of a lumbering sheep when jumping lower obstacles, it lives up to its namesake with the higher. As you can see here, when clearing a 40cm-high obstacle at 2.4m/s, no stumble or awkwardness is apparent, and Cheetah becomes formidable.

 Butterfly & bee image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic