Friday, October 22, 2021

US Army’s New Research Frontier — Squirrel-Inspired Land-Based Drones That Are Agile, Intelligent & Great Spies

The US Army has partnered with researchers at UC Berkeley to study fox squirrels and attempt to understand why these rodents are able to make exceptional leaps and are well-versed in “reading” obstacles keeping their own physical limitations in mind.

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This biomimetics research will offer valuable insights into making robots suited to navigate all kinds of complex terrains.

Biomimetics

Biomimetics is an interdisciplinary field that uses biology as the basis for new technologies. It has long been used in defense research. Decades of research in biomimetics have led to the creation of a wide variety of novel solutions for several kinds of problems- from curbing biofouling on ships to preventing corrosion in fighter jets.

Researching and taking inspiration from the animal kingdom is nothing new in this field. Every fish, insect, bird, and mammal, possesses a suite of sensors (eyes, ears, noses) and uses their arms, wings, fins, beaks, etc. as tools for moving and interacting with their external environment.

Their brains function as high-speed data processing and decision-making centers.

For instance, the common city pigeon has much more flight maneuverability compared to any drone. Pigeons also come naturally equipped with better sensors and faster data-processing capability, alongside enhanced power efficiency. This bird could be studied to improve technology.

In fact, until a few years ago, Pentagon researchers were observing birds and bees to explore their flocking and flight patterns. This was done to look for detailed insights to be used in the development of drone-swarming algorithms. The research focused on the fact that swarms of birds and bees follow intricate and fast-moving flight path adjustments near one another, without ever having a collision.

Reputed academic institutions such as MIT, UC Berkeley, and others have biology-inspired robotics laboratories. The US Department of Defense, especially the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has played a crucial role in funding much of this research. Programs funded by DARPA have produced robotic hummingbirds, cheetahs, and pack mules as well.

Russia’s Robotic ‘Cockroach’

Interest in biomimetic research is not limited to just the US, though. In 2015, Russian scientists developed a robotic “cockroach,” which they reported would be ideal for covertly recording conversations and taking pictures.

Now, UC Berkeley researchers are working on a project that is expected to pave the way for future US Army robots to be able to autonomously roll or walk over rough terrain easily. Their research is using the agility and decision-making of squirrels as a base.

Although the US military has deployed a wide array of flying drones over the past two decades, the development of ground-based drones has lagged. The complexity of ground drones lies in the environment they operate in. Unlike flying drones, ground drones can face a host of obstacles.

A drone in such an environment needs to be able to detect whether it can climb a pile of rocks or move around a trench etc. In the field, not only must a drone know the answer to such questions, but it must also be extremely quick in reacting.

But locomotion is an extremely complicated subfield of robotics. The machines fall over and get stuck quite easily. This is where squirrels come to the rescue.

Why Squirrels?

Squirrels are able to move their bodies to jump, land, maneuver, and adjust to their environment within a fraction of a second. They can also adjust themselves mid-flight to reach a perch or some other platform.

Army scientists are researching this ability to explore and study the natural biological mechanisms that are responsible for squirrels’ agility. The end goal is to use the research to design more “creative intelligence” within robots.

Squirrel
A squirrel jumping from one branch to the next. (Via Freepik)

These rodents also possess attributes that out-perform humans in terms of certain kinds of varied and nuanced decision-making. There are valuable insights to be found when it comes to engineering robots to better “adapt” to their surroundings.

Dean Culver, an Army Research Office program manager, explained to National Interest that even the most advanced robots cannot make these kinds of immediate adaptations to their surroundings the way squirrels do.

“If we want them (robots) to perform a task, we have to tell them all the steps and how to do it,” he said. “They can’t accommodate variability.”

In this context, understanding how animals such as squirrels assess risk and factor in their own personal limitations to deal with a situation can help develop more nimble autonomous robots.

Integrating Sensors 

However, achieving animal-like movement in machines is not just about recreating the mechanical systems of the animal body with hydraulics and high-tech materials.

It must involve the active integration of sensors. A wide variety of receptors help living organisms coordinate and control their movement. For balancing while they are on the move, animals’ proprioceptors keep them aware of their bodies’ changing orientation.

On the other hand, exteroceptors provide awareness of external stimuli while internal receptors help maintain homeostasis. It is necessary that bio-inspired robots are able to mimic them too.

We do not yet know how to replicate all the capabilities of nature in the technologies we create. However, the mere existence of these abilities in nature proves they are indeed possible.

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