Lest you worry that the Scribbler has gone all-climate, all-the-time, here’s video of a robotic salamander that walks and swims.
The research was published last week in Science. It’s a tour de force involving translating a theoretical model of a salamander’s neural system into a physical model that’s eerily reminiscent of the real thing.
This work must represent a pinnacle in the authors’ scientific careers. I’m happy for them, then, that they made their robot a cumbersome, meter-long prototype the color of a school bus, ensuring prompt coverage at Nature, Wired, the BBC, MacNewsWorld, the Washington Post and right here at brandung.vogel.gekritzel (OK, I’m a few days late, but I was imprisoned in a Bavarian castle for most of the weekend).
Cool graphics aside, this work is fascinating because it’s a glimpse of evolutionary research as performed by a neuroscientist. The group started with a simple system of nerves that can make an animal swim. Then they looked for subtle modifications to the network that could make a long body undulate and its appendages wiggle in such a way that the creature could gain traction at a lakeshore and then haul itself onto land. (Here’s video of the robot clambering out of Lake Geneva.)
No fewer than 14 videos and numerous photos are available at the robot’s webpage in the Biologically Inspired Robotics Group of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. Why didn’t anyone tell me about these folks back when I stopped enrolling in math classes?
What I like about this research is the implication that, if you’re imaginative enough, you can still make major scientific contributions while standing ankle-deep in water and playing with a glorified Lego set.
(Image: A. Badertscher, Biologically Inspired Robotics Group, EPFL)