Within the Biorobotics Lab (BioRob) of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, there’s an entire research team dedicated to Amphibious Robotics, a field of research that develops robots to study animal neurology and evolutionary biology. Led by professor Auke Jan Ijspeert, the team is hard at work building the kind of creatures you might expect to see starring in a next wave of Jurassic Park films: robotic snakes, fish, and centipedes, all of which mirror the movements and behaviors of their sentient counterparts.
The team’s latest creation is a robo-salamander called Pleurobot, which they claim is the most realistic robotic animal ever programmed. With his life-like skeleton, 27 joints, and unsettling, purplish glowing eyes, Pleurobot can can crawl and even swim (when donning a little wetsuit) like a normal salamander. He might also be able to help researchers develop new therapies for people with spinal injuries who are paralyzed.
Because the salamander straddles the divide between marine life and land animals, Pleurobot is ideal for testing big evolutionary questions such as, how did our spinal cords change when our ancestors evolved from aquatic to terrestrial beings? It can also help researchers better understand the complex workings of the human spinal cord, and provide a test subject for neuroscientists studying how the spine receives control signals.
“By decoding this primitive animal what we hope is to also contribute to the understanding of how mammals, including humans, walk. And therefore understanding input and output relationships of the spinal cord,” Ijspeert tells Reuters. Down the line, this could also offer important guidance for how to re-stimulate the spinal cord in paraplegic patients.
To build Pleurobot, researchers used advanced cineradiography to take 3-D X-rays of real salamanders going about their daily business. They were able to track 64 points in the amphibian’s skeleton and figure out which joints were active and which were passive at any given time. This makes the salamander robot extremely realistic in its movements (though a good bit creepier in appearance).