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'Bio-inspired robots' being developed to one day save lives

Posted at 10:37 AM, Mar 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-11 13:39:04-04

BALTIMORE, Md. – In looking for creative inspiration, engineering student Qiyuan Fu finds it in a box, with an interesting occupant.

Inside: a real, live snake.

“We can definitely learn something from them,” Fu said.

The snake is a Kingsnake, which is native to deserts in California and Mexico and serves as the model for a new robot, developed in a mechanical engineering lab at Johns Hopkins University.

“We added this one directional wheel, so it can only rotate in one direction,” said Fu, as he demonstrated how the robot moves.

The “snake robot,” and its colleague, the “roach robot,” are so-called “bio-inspired robots” – taking their cues from mother nature.

“We studied snakes here because they are exceptionally good at moving through almost any terrain,” said Johns Hopkins assistant professor Chen Li.

Li said it’s an idea with practical applications: the robots could potentially help in search and rescue, by making their way through tight spaces to find people trapped in rubble.

“People have actually tried to build snake robots for several decades,” he said.

In the past, though, the robots fell short once they left the lab environments, unable to make it through different types of terrain. This time – using specially positioned cameras – they’ve observed how the snakes and roaches move across different surfaces and attempted to mimic what nature already does so well.

“What's really unique about our work is that we focus on understanding the physical principles – starting by looking at animals,” Li said. “And then by understanding such principles, we can apply them to the to the robot.”

The snakes have 200 vertebrae; the snake robot has 20 segments. It’s progress, these engineers say, with more to go.

“There’s still going to be a lot of challenges ahead,” Li said.

The engineering lab is now looking into modeling robots based on lizards. That’s because of their ability to leap across surfaces, which could further help robots make their way across uneven terrain.