One of the big problems robots have is locomotion. You may have a robot that can “see” pallets and place them accurately, but getting a robot to move across the factory floor is very difficult. They fall down, run out of energy, and get stuck.
Robots have recently been built which can, given perfect circumstances, walk or climb stairs. They can’t do much else, though. And they can’t keep it up in the context of working in a factory. They’re basically machines for moving in a particular way.
A new biorobotics study may help change that. Mechanical engineer Mathew Woodward studied desert locusts, a creature that handles slippery surfaces particularly well. The desert locust can jump from smooth surfaces and rough ones with no problems.
He found that these locusts’ feet have two characteristics that make a big difference: adhesive pads and spiny claw-like structures.
Woodward wrote a paper called “Morphological intelligence counters foot slipping in the desert locust and dynamic robots,” which you can read in full.
Robots can’t walk like people, but maybe they can walk like locusts
The larger idea, however, is that it might work better to build robots that will find it easier to walk, rather than trying to teach robots to walk.
Robot feet, or maybe “feet,” could be built with materials and design that provide “morphological intelligence” — smart shapes.
Human walking takes a lot of brain power. The brain constantly adjusts balance, using information gleaned from the surroundings and the walking surface, as well as proprioception. This is a big, big job. Since robots that do nothing but walk aren’t needed in modern life, it doesn’t make much sense to focus on building a robot capable of walking like a human being.
Desert locusts have nowhere near the brain power of a human being. They don’t use long years of experience and sophisticated neural pathways to balance themselves when they jump or to rescue themselves when they slip. They simply have developed feet that can handle slipping.
A focus on the materials and design of elements of the robot based on learning from other creatures could pay off faster than attempts to increase a robot’s intelligence to the levels that would allow it to behave more like a human.