There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. Over the next few weeks, we’re profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.
The best movers in the world are animals, so why do all of our transportation modes rely on wheels and not legs? That’s the question that inspires the work at MIT’s Biomimetics lab. According to Sangbae Kim, an associate professor at the lab, their main goal is to develop walking robots that move as well as any animal -- and shape how all robots move in the future.
They decided the best inspiration for locomotion would be to find the fastest moving animal on Earth and mimic its makeup in robot legs. Enter the cheetah. Capable of speeds up to about 64 miles per hour, the big cat outpaces all other running animals in the world (except, perhaps, the Paratarsotomus macropalpis -- a beetle the size of a sesame seed that can run 322 body-lengths per second compared to the Cheetah’s 16.)
“Each animal has their advantage, but the cheetah uses speed as a survival skill. It doesn’t have many other skills -- it’s jaws aren’t very strong -- the only thing it’s good at is speed. And that’s why we can identify it’s mechanical features. We’re looking at it’s leg shape, mass distribution, the joints they’re using, and their gait,” says Kim.
The cats are also incredibly good at changing direction at high speed. Their unique muscular makeup allows them to use their tail to pivot at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, says Kim, cheetahs are endangered so they can’t study one in the lab. The team has learned about the cats’ unique abilities by watching nature videos and reading studies by the few scientists that have had the chance to study them.
“We read papers about them. Researchers at Royal College in England they recorded forces and slow motion in a captive cheetah. We take inspiration from videos and learn mechanical aspects like how they achieve a stable running,” he says.
What they’ve learned is that the animal’s leg shape is essential: it has a slender leg and all of its muscles are concentrated up next to its body. That way they minimize their energy use and maximize the swing of their legs.