RF: â€œTo climb a pile of rock, what would a robot do? Well, that takes a lot of computation. Itâ€™s very slow, and if the robot makes a mistake and puts its foot in the wrong place, itâ€™ll fall down the hill. And now you look at how an animal does that. Its legs start flying at full speed, the feet just go wherever they want to go. Itâ€™s up at the top of the hill while the robotâ€™s still thinking about where to put its next foot.â€
While robots typically have to calculate their every movement precisely, animals have a seemingly innate ability to maneuver. Well, UC Berkeley engineer Ron Fearing has turned to nature for inspiration, in developing a new class of robot with an animalâ€™s maneuverability. Iâ€™m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet.
RF: â€œIf you look at the way the animal moves, itâ€™s one integrated whole. The mechanics is tied together with the brain. Looking at the coupling between the brain and the body is the area called neuromechanics neuro for brain and mechanics for the motion. And in robotics we donâ€™t quite have that yet. Thereâ€™s still sort of this dividing line between what the brain tells the robot to do and what the motors are doing.â€
And an animalâ€™s physical mechanics can be highly complex. So, for example, if you want a robot that can climb walls, like a gecko does, you have to look beyond the ability of its feet to adhere to surfaces.
RF: â€œYou also need to know what are the legs doing, whatâ€™s the whole body doing, whatâ€™s the tail doing, and all of those things seem to be working together in very sophisticated ways so that the system works well, and we see that when we try to build a robot. If we just copy one particular aspect of the animal and put it on a robot, the results are less impressive than one might hope.â€
Ron Fearing is one of the participants in the Kidsâ€™ Science Challenge, our nationwide competition for third to sixth graders, made possible by the National Science Foundation. To learn more, check out KidScienceChallenge.com. Youâ€™ve been listening to Pulse of the Planet. Iâ€™m Jim Metzner.