Animal research involves a lot of trial-and-error, but learning how the natural world works is an important part of understanding how to live well alongside it. For ethologists (scientists who study animal behavior), efficiency is key—especially because animals in the wild don’t perform on demand. Studying them depends on waiting for a narrow window of perfect conditions to appear, and that’s where robo-ethology can help. It may seem counterintuitive, but using robots to simulate animal behavior allows researchers to isolate variables and conduct repeatable tests, and has the added benefit of being less invasive to the natural habitat.
To show what we mean, here are a few animal-bots (and one cyborg bug—cybug?) that are helping researchers hack the natural world.
Rattlesnake vs. Robo-squirrel
After learning that California ground squirrels developed a resistance to rattlesnake venom, researches wanted to test how squirrels defend themselves from these slithering strikers. Waiting on a chance encounter would take too long, so scientists created “robo-squirrel,” allowing them to start experimenting wherever and whenever they wanted. Remotely controlling the robot’s tail movements proved that vigorous wagging motions kept rattlesnakes at bay.
Match-Making Fiddler Crabs
The murky underwater animal kingdom is a difficult environment for fiddler crabs to find the perfect mate. They rely heavily on color, size, and movement cues in their mating process. Scientists created three sizes of robotic crab claws and moved them in different patterns to determine just what females look for in choosing the perfect mate. In doing so, they proved that bigger claws and more vigorous movements garnered the most attention.
Creepy Crawling Life Savers
The thought of a roach crawling by might give you the shivers, but one day it could save your life. Cyborg cockroaches guided by sound and light cues could one day be deployed in disaster zones to aid the search for survivors. Their solar powered microphone backpacks can pick up even the faintest of cries, and help human rescuers pinpoint a location that only a small creature could hope to reach.
Honey Bee Hoedown
Honey bees guide fellow colony members to flowers filled with nectar and pollen using their signature waggle dance. Though a waggle may seem simple, it’s comprised of many steps. Scientists created a mechanical bee that moves, sounds, and smells just like the real thing to help them break it down, so to speak. Manipulating individual components of the waggle dance has helped them discover that motion and sound are the most important factors of bee communication.
Deep Sea Shark-bot
Life may have started underwater, but we’ve long since parted ways with our underwater kin. One exception to that rule are US Naval officers, who deal with low visibility missions where peering into the depths is a necessity. Enter the GhostSwimmer, a shark-inspired unmanned underwater vehicle that does the job of divers and sailors, keeping them out of harms way. This 5 foot, 100 pound biomimetic shark-bot can dive up to 300 feet and swims just like a fish by oscillating its tail back and forth.
Bio-inspired robots have paved the way for innovation in scientific research making the complex systems of living subjects easier to understand. Scientists are controlling these bio-bots to explore spaces beyond reach, observe behavior often unseen, and control variables that can’t be predicted. In mimicking the behavior of animals, these robots have extended the human capabilities of observation.