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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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.


Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

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I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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