Airdate: Oct 12, 2009
Scientist: Dr. Ron Fearing
KSC Biomimicry - Neuromechanics
For animals, movement is second nature, but otherwise sophisticated robots have to calculate every step.
RF: “To climb a pile of rock, what would a robot do? Well, that takes a lot of computation. It’s very slow, and if the robot makes a mistake and puts its foot in the wrong place, it’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. It’s up at the top of the hill while the robot’s still thinking about where to put its next foot.”
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 animal’s maneuverability. I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet.
RF: “If you look at the way the animal moves, it’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 don’t quite have that yet. There’s still sort of this dividing line between what the brain tells the robot to do and what the motors are doing.”
And an animal’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: “You also need to know what are the legs doing, what’s the whole body doing, what’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.”
Ron Fearing is one of the participants in the Kids’ Science Challenge, our nationwide competition for third to sixth graders, made possible by the National Science Foundation. To learn more, check out KidScienceChallenge.com. You’ve been listening to Pulse of the Planet. I’m Jim Metzner.