In March, the American military-research outfit known as DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) put out a call for research on "insect cyborgs" that might serve on the front lines. Outfitted with remote controls and high-tech gear such as GPS, listening devices, and chemical sensors, these theoretical (for now) bugs could be flown inconspicuously into nearly any hostile environment to eavesdrop and sniff out explosives or chemical agents.
"Biological systems have had eons to evolve particular traits," says DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker. "We're interested in discovering how these traits are engineered and how we can adapt that engineering in new ways." This is, in fact, only the latest foray into animal-inspired robotics. Other DARPA-funded research has included the Robolobster, capable of maneuvering through shallow, turbulent tidal zones (one possible use: locating and detonating coastal mines). Federal funding has also spurred research into bees, cockroaches, and dolphins.
Cribbing from the cradle of life is nothing new, of course. Scientists have been reverse-engineering the natural world for years, co-opting the best designs, materials, and features in the name of everything from warfare to child's play. (Spotting burrs in his dog's fur, a Swiss inventor borrowed their hook-and-loop structure to create Velcro.) After all, Mother Nature has yet to sue for patent infringement.
Occasionally, scientists even claim (quietly) to be able to improve on nature. "The evolutionary process faces constraints far more severe than anything impeding human designers," writes Steven Vogel, a Duke University biologist, in his book Cats' Paws and Catapults. "We biologists recognize these constraints, but we don't often… make enough public noise about them."
So at MIT, Anette Hosoi's 10-inch RoboSnail is being used to study the undulating locomotion of slugs and to better understand fluid dynamics. The RoboSnail, which can climb vertically and propel itself upside-down, is helping pave the way for machines that could navigate in harsh chemical environments, since its foot has no exposed joints.
Further up the food chain, the biomimetic creations of Howie Choset, a director at Carnegie Mellon's Biorobotics Lab, emulate snakes and elephants' trunks. Dubbed Medusa and Snoopy, respectively, they could ultimately be used to inspect engines and bridges, disarm bombs, search for victims in collapsed buildings, and even usher in a new era of minimally invasive heart surgery.
The list doesn't stop there. Brazilian scientists recently figured out how to control a crab with a computer; researchers at the University of Sheffield are investigating how pharaoh ants might lend a hand with traffic congestion; and Boston Dynamics' BigDog, "the most advanced quadruped robot on Earth," can trot at 3.3 mph, carry a 120-pound load, and climb at a 35-degree incline. Funded in part by DARPA, robots like BigDog may ultimately see service as pack mules in the military. No doggy bags will be required; BigDog runs on gasoline.
- Robolobster Built at Northeastern University, it could locate and detonate mines in choppy tidal zones.
- Insect This micromechanical flying bug from UC Berkeley might fly into hostile areas to sniff out bombs and chemicals.
- "Snoopy" Carnegie Mellon's device, modeled on an elephant's trunk, could inspect bridges and disarm bombs.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.