Robotics Researchers Look To Animals To Make The Perfect Bots

Animals have many of the characteristics of the brilliantly useful machines scientists would like to create: flexibility, adaptability, instinctive intelligence ...

Harvard's RoboBee project
Harvard's RoboBee project
Frank Niedercorn

PARIS — The little robot moves on unperturbed despite just being run over by a sport utility vehicle. Unlike similar machines with rigid structures, this one created by teams from the Harvard School of Engineering and Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering has a soft body made of a mix of rubber and silicone and strengthened with synthetic fibers. It moves on four legs articulated by rubber activators, like something between an insect and a snail. It is just one of the many examples of robots inspired by animals, whose characteristics are of increasing interest to researchers.

Suppleness, for example, is a whole new field in robotics, and researchers are no longer satisfied with the combination of metal and plastic. "A soft palm helps the hand catch objects, because it molds around them," says Pierre-Yves Oudeyer, head of research at Inria in France. As for the heels, he adds, "They can stock up energy needed for human movement."

In any case, the soft parts of a robot are less prone to breaking, says Mike Tolley, head of bio-inspired robotics at the University of San Diego. Robots with a soft body "have an attractive future with a range of applications, from civilian security, to rescuing people and as medical devices," he says. "In fact, in any area where robots interact with people and security is an issue."

Scientists are also fascinated by the exceptional faculties of certain creatures, like a fly's visual acumen. Its eyes have just a few thousand pixels and its brain one million neurons, so how can it still fly in an unfamiliar world without bumping into things?

Photo: Tanozzo

A fly calculates neither its speed nor its altitude to adapt its trajectory, but instead estimates its position thanks to a visual flow provided by the speed at which it flies past objects.

Doing more with less

Nature's lesson, says Stéphane Viollet from the Institute of the Science of Mobility at Aix-Marseilles, is that "you can do much with few resources." Viollet heads the biorobotics team at the Institute, which has developed an electronic eye inspired by flies. It is low-resolution, lightweight and low-cost, and interesting to industry. Viollet says it could one day be fixed onto tiny drones to improve their ability to stay still in mid-air or "fly in town, between buildings when you cannot use a GPS."

Robotics experts understand that the perfect machine "will remain a dream for a long time," says Pierre-Yves Oudeyer. "Every animal is particularly adapted to a specific environment, so the idea of conceiving a universal machine that can do any task, in any environment, is an illusion," he says. But animals may also help find a solution to that, especially "social" insects like ants, bees or termites.

"These societies are considered vast nervous systems wherein individuals are neurons interacting to elaborate a common project," say Anne Guillot and Jean-Arcady Meyer in the 2014 French book Poulpe Fiction: When Animals Inspire Innovation (2014). So while each individual member has "limited brain matter, they manage to make complex constructions without the intervention of a supervisor-architect."

"Swarm" robots are another crucial area of robotics research. The European Swarm-bots project, coordinated by Lausanne Polytechnic, makes little robots on wheels that work together on complex tasks, like lifting a heavy object. Labri, a Bordeaux IT research institute, is doing something similar with drones. The aim is make drones that collaborate in flexible surveillance operations. If one drone had to return to base, the others would reconfigure themselves to pursue the task without it, says Serge Chaumette, a Labri professor. "These scenarios cannot be implemented today due to flying regulations that require an operator for each machine. We hope to make the situation evolve with our work," he says.

This is really the beginning of collaborative work between robots. The Bordeaux researchers are working with colleagues in Télécom Bretagne on the Daisie project, financed by the French state, to make drones that will collaborate to find objects on the ground. Or to make land robots that explore terrain and communicate with the robot next to them, creating a potentially unlimited chain of communications. The benefits are numerous: The robots are cheaper because each is relatively simple. They can be spread over a relatively large surface area, and are tough and flexible. The French army is interested in these.

These swarm robots could in the future shrink and start looking like the RoboBee developed at Harvard: two centimeters in length, three wide and weighing just a tenth of a gram. What's the use of the carbon-fiber RoboBee, which can flap its wings 120 times a second thanks to a piezoelectric device? It could visit space and especially the planet Mars, where craft with fixed wings find it difficult to fly, says Jean-Arcady Meyer. Or, one day, they may have to replace real bees and ensure the planet's survival by pollinating the fields.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020


Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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