Tapping Mother Nature To Build Better Robotic Sensors

For all their recent improvements, most robotic sensors are still worse than even lousy human senses. Thanks to some crazy experiments with insects, animals, and even gooey mold, that’s about to change.

Today’s robots use basic infrared sensors to navigate around obstacles (think Roomba), but tomorrow’s contraptions will have far better sensory organs, inspired by the best examples in nature. Here’s a look at the weird experiments harnessing insects, animals, and fungi that are already producing fascinating solutions for the next generation of robots to better sense, navigate, and interact with the world.

Oozing Efficiency

Like your average teenager, slime mold avoids light and has a remarkable ability to find the fastest route to food--all without a brain. Scientists at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory have hooked yellow slime mold to a humanoid robot head and used its electrical sensory pulses (going to food or away from light) to control the robot’s facial expressions:

Not a single creature, but a conglomerate blob of identical unicellular organisms, yellow slime mold is known for its ability to solve problems with a superbasic memory akin to a memristor, New Scientist reports.

Smelling Disaster

Back in February, researchers at the University of Tokyo released the results of an experiment that involved strapping a moth to a trackball of styrofoam on a wheeled robot rig. The moth was made to scuttle after female pheromones, thus “directing” the robot via trackball. The researchers also tracked the moth’s sensory antenna and movements to analyze how they so effectively sense odors.

It may seem silly, but improving the robotic sense of smell has the potential to save lives. Most chemical sensors have a slow recovery time and cannot detect the temporal dynamics of odors as insects do, lead sutdy author Noriyasu Ando said. Harnessing these delicate senses would speed up chemical spill robots’ ability to find the source of leaks.

In fact, it’s already happening. Achim Lilienthal, director of the mobile robotics and olfaction lab at Orebo University in Sweden, developed a lawnmower-sized “gasbot” that uses lasers to scan the chemical composition of the air and then makes a three-dimensional map of the gas plume. The gasbot was already used to spot a methane leak in a landfill and an underground gas leak--both of which could have resulted in explosive disaster.

Deep Sensing

But what about places where robots can’t even see? To survive in the ocean’s depths, European scientists have been testing the FILOSE (Robotic Fish Locomotion and Sensing). Their trout-shaped robot uses lateral-line sensing, which was inspired by the string of nerve clusters from lip to tail found on over 30,000 species of fish, to help it detect the speed and direction of currents. Maarja Kruusmaa, professor of biorobotics at the Tallinn University in Estonia, developed FILOSE with colleagues over a period of four years. The fishbot uses sensors to detect changes in pressure and can even slip in the “sweet spot” behind other fish to conserve energy, similar to drafting in car or bicycle racing.