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Could robot animals save the world?


Animals and insects are a growing source of inspiration for robot manufacturers. Robot swans, bee drones… such innovations are multiplying so much that a new robotised fauna is being established… often with the objective of protecting the environment and biodiversity.

Credit: Thinkstock – Abele

Biomimicry has always been a source of inspiration for inventors. From the first turbojet aircraft modelled on the nautilus , to Velcro that reproduces the properties of the fruit of a burdock plant, there are countless examples of mankind borrowing from nature. Today, it is an increasingly important source of inspiration for robot developers who are seeking to reproduce numerous species’ ability to adapt to their environment. A “ratoid ” named Psikharpax, for example, takes inspiration from rats’ spatial awareness abilities to find its way around autonomously. “Madeleine”, an underwater robot developed by researchers in New York, replicates the movements of turtles to swim in deep water. Engineers have also developed robots capable of swimming in certain currents, like tuna fish, without a power supply. Crabster CR200, a 2.4 metre-long robot-crab created by scientists from the Korean Ocean Research and Development Institute, was itself designed to explore seabeds subject to very strong currents.

Such innovations are breaking new ground in improving the monitoring of natural environments. Robot swans developed by Singaporean robotics experts are an interesting example of these new forms of use. Their mission? To monitor the quality of water and water sources using sensors to measure the pH level, turbidity, and the chlorophyll or oxygen content. Reproducing the appearance of swans for aesthetic reasons, they are equipped with an on-board GPS system to ensure that they do not return to an area that has already been analysed, and to enable them to make their own way back to their charging point. Practically self-sufficient, they do not need to be guided and controlled by humans. They could soon be equipped with sensors for detecting phosphates, a toxic substance fostering the development of invasive algae, making it possible to pre-empt the deployment of measures to counter them.

Another example currently at the planning stage is B-Pure, a drone modelled on a bee with the objective of purifying the air of the city . This miniature drone (10 cm) was designed by an Argentinean student from the Sustainable Design School in Nice as part of a design contest organised by Air Liquide, with the theme “Breathe in the City” . While its feasibility has yet to be demonstrated, the idea itself is both appealing and innovative. The bee-drones would nest in hives fitted with sensors, installed on street lights. The presence of pollution in the air would signal an alert in the “swarms” and would trigger the release of the bee drones into the city. Flying a few metres above the ground, they would purify the air using their on-board particulate filter. Once their mission is complete, the drones would return to the “hive ” for cleaning and to recharge.

The beekeeping world is a great inspiration for researchers. A team from Harvard University, for its part, has developed another bee-sized drone: Robo-Fly . Made using carbon fibre, about the size of a five pence piece and weighing less than a gram, it is currently designed for use in the prevention of certain weather conditions. But, in the future, it could even replace real bees, according to one of the many fields of application suggested by its creators. Using its navigation system designed to imitate a bee’s eyesight, the Robo-Fly could fill in for them in the pollination of flowers and buds.

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