Robots vs animals: who wins the race in natural environments?

summary: Researchers have discovered whether modern robots can outperform biological organisms in speed and agility. The study concluded that despite advances in engineering, animals still outperform robots in locomotive efficiency in natural environments.

The researchers found that the integration of robotic components falls short of the coherent system-level process seen in animals. This vision is driving the development of more integrated and adaptable robotic systems, inspired by nature's design.

Key facts:

  1. Robotic versus biological efficiency: The study confirms that individual robotic subsystems such as power and actuation can match or exceed their biological counterparts, yet robots do not perform as well as animals when these systems are combined.
  2. Inspiring biological models: The research highlights how animals, such as wolf spiders and cockroaches, excel in complex terrains and tasks because of their integrated and versatile biological systems.
  3. Future engineering trends: The findings encourage engineers to rethink robot design, and call for a more integrated approach similar to biological systems, where different functions are combined within single components.

source: University of Colorado

Perhaps the question is a 21st century version of the tortoise and the hare tale: Who would win in a foot race between a robot and an animal?

In a new perspective article, a team of engineers from the United States and Canada, including roboticist Kaushik Jayaram of the University of Colorado Boulder, set out to answer this mystery.

So, how can engineers build robots that, like animals, are more than just the sum of their parts? Credit: Neuroscience News

The group analyzed data from dozens of studies and came to a resounding “no.” In almost all cases, biological creatures, such as cheetahs, cockroaches and even humans, seem to be able to outperform their robotic counterparts.

The researchers, led by Samuel Borden of the University of Washington and Maxwell Donnellan of Simon Fraser University, published their findings last week in the journal. Scientific robotics.

“As an engineer, it's kind of annoying,” said Jayaram, an assistant professor in the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Over 200 years of extensive engineering, we have been able to send spacecraft to the Moon, Mars and much more. But it is puzzling that we do not yet have robots that are much better at moving in natural environments than biological systems.”

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He hopes this study will inspire engineers to learn how to build smarter, more adaptable robots. The researchers concluded that the failure of robots to outperform animals is not due to a deficiency in any piece of machinery, such as batteries or motors. Instead, engineers may struggle to make these parts work together efficiently.

This pursuit is one of Jayaram's main passions. His lab on the CU Boulder campus is home to many creepy crawlies, including several furry wolf spiders about the size of a half-dollar.

“Wolf spiders are natural hunters,” Jayaram said. “They live under rocks and can run over complex terrain at amazing speed to catch prey.”

He envisions a world in which engineers build robots that act more like these unusual spiders.

“The animals are, to some degree, the embodiment of this ultimate design principle, a system that works well together,” he said.

Cockroach energy

Question “Who can run better, animals or robots?” It's complicated because the operation itself is complicated.

In previous research, Jayaram and his colleagues at Harvard University designed a group of robots that seek to imitate aversive cockroach behavior. The team's HAMR-Jr model fits into a coin and runs at speeds equivalent to that of a cheetah. But, Jayaram noted, while the HAMR-Jr can move forward and backward, it doesn't move well side-to-side or on rough terrain.

In contrast, the humble cockroach has no problem running across surfaces from porcelain to dirt and gravel. They can also break down walls and squeeze through small cracks.

To understand why this diversity is a challenge for robotics, the authors of the new study divided these machines into five subsystems including power, frame, actuation, sensing, and control. To the group's surprise, a few of these subsystems appeared to fall short of their animal counterparts.

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For example, high-quality lithium-ion batteries can provide up to 10 kilowatts of energy for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) they weigh. By contrast, animal tissue produces about a tenth of that. Meanwhile, muscles can't come close to matching the absolute torque of many engines.

“But at the system level, the robots are not good,” Jayaram said. “We face inherent design trade-offs. If we try to improve one thing, like forward speed, we may lose something else, like turning ability.

Spider senses

So, how can engineers build robots that, like animals, are more than just the sum of their parts?

Jayaram noted that animals are not divided into separate subsystems in the same way as robots. For example, your quadriceps propel your legs like HAMR-Jr motors propel your limbs. But the quads also produce their own strength by breaking down fats and sugars and integrating nerve cells that can sense pain and pressure.

Jayaram thinks the future of robotics may be limited to “functional subunits” that do the same thing: Instead of keeping power supplies separate from motors and circuit boards, why not integrate them all into one part?

In a 2015 paper, computer scientist Nicholas Curiel, who was not involved in the current study, proposed such theoretical “robotic materials” that would act more like quads.

Engineers are still far from achieving this goal. Some, like Jayaram, are taking steps in this direction, as with his lab's Articulated Arthropod Insect Robot (CLARI), a multi-legged robot that moves a bit like a spider.

Jayaram explained that CLARI is based on a modular design, with each of its legs acting like a self-contained robot with its own motor, sensors and control circuits. The team's new and improved version, called mCLARI, can move in all directions in tight spaces, a first for four-legged robots.

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It's something else that engineers like Jayaram can learn from those quintessential hunters, wolf spiders.

“Nature is a really helpful teacher.”

About robotics and neurotechnology research news

author: Daniel Strain
source: University of Colorado
communication: Daniel Strain – University of Colorado
picture: Image credited to Neuroscience News

Original search: Open access.
Why can animals outperform robots?“By Kaushik Jayaram et al. Scientific robotics


a summary

Why can animals outperform robots?

Animals are much better at running than robots. The difference in performance arises in the important dimensions of agility, range and durability.

To understand the reasons behind this performance gap, we compare natural and artificial technologies in five critical operating subsystems: power, frame, actuation, sensing, and control.

With few exceptions, engineering technologies meet or exceed the performance of their biological counterparts.

We conclude that biology's advantage over engineering arises from better integration of subsystems, and we identify four key hurdles that roboticists must overcome.

To achieve this goal, we highlight promising research directions that have tremendous potential to help future robots achieve animal-level performance.

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