Friday, November 6, 2009
source:Cheetah, Gecko and Spiders Inspire Robotic Designs, By Priya Ganapati, October 16, 2009, Wired Magazine

The article talks about the work being done by MIT professor, Sangbae Kim and his team of robots--I mean slaves--I mean grad students. So far they have built some great little robots based on organic forms which mimic the high-speed crawling ability of the cockroach and the vertical climbing trick of the gecko. Both of those projects are a success, and more refinement is being done. But Kim's current focus is on the form of the cheetah.

He intends to build a robot with the same physical aspects as the world's fastest land animal. His "modest" goal is to get the robot running 35 mph. Even that would be a landmark, as current robot mobility is still fairly limited by terrain and obstacles. His hope is to overcome those limitations. Taking inspiration from nature is an important part of his work, as he points out in the interview for this Wired article.

That last point really struck me as the most profound part of the article. He says, “Animals have to find food, shelter; move towards water or away from a predator. Moving is one of their biggest functions, and they do it very well. That’s why ideas from nature are very important for a robotic designer like me.”

The truth of that statement had never occurred to me, though now it seems fairly obvious. As humans we have so many ways to get travel throughout the world and overcome limited mobility that we often overlook the amazing array of skills found in the animal kingdom. When we really look at those things we become enchanted. Just ask the accountants for National Geographic.

Pondering this tendency of different species to evolve such varied ranges of movement puts a fine point on the beauty of life. The fact that one of the world's best robot designers takes his ideas from the tropics, the Savanna, a Manhattan kitchen sometime after dark when a cold pizza lies uncovered on the counter top, just shows how much we humans really are the foil by which nature can appreciate itself.

Our quest in making robots seems to be a fine example of a combination of humanity's greatest attributes: curiosity, creativity, intellect, and humility. I'll take those four traits over most of the others one could name any day.