Engineers and biologists at the University of California, Berkeley have come together to build a new robot with a unique physical characteristic: a tail.
The design of the appropriately named Tailbot—which looks like a toy car—is based on research of how lizards and dinosaurs move. The University of California, Berkeley team discovered that lizards use their tails to help guide leaps and self-correct themselves—even if they slip or stumble—so that they land safely and correctly.
It’s long been believed that two-legged dinosaurs used their tails for stability, and lizards have similar mechanics. During his research, team leader Robert J. Full, University of California, Berkeley professor of integrative biology, was also fascinated to observe that geckos, use their toe hairs to help them climb smooth vertical surfaces.
Full’s team used high-speed videography and motion capture to see what happened when a lizard was coaxed to run down a track, jump off a platform and land on a vertical surface. The team periodically changed the friction (slipperiness) of the platform and found that the red-headed African Agama lizard would counter any slipping by using its tail to correct its body alignment.
“We showed for the first time that lizards swing their tail up or down to counteract the rotation of their body, keeping them stable,” Full said.
The key to stability is not the tail per se—the team first created a robot with a inanimate tail, which failed dramatically—but rather the ability to self-correct while in motion. After watching the lizard carefully, the team designed a mathematical model and a small gyroscope to sense body position. When body position was sensed and fed back to the tail motor, Tailbot was able to stabilize its body in midair.
This breakthrough will likely impact the way robots are designed in the future. The ability to sense position and self-correct will make for more autonomous and agile robots. It’s hoped that search and rescue robots and those used in remote, hazardous and uneven terrain will be much benefited by the new Tailbot technology.
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