The way animals e;ortlessly traverse dense brush, rocky hills, and other unpredictable terrains has always fascinated Aaron Johnson, robot
aficionado and assistant professor of me-
chanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon
University in Pittsburgh.
“Even walking on a relatively flat side-
walk can be very challenging for your aver-
age robot,” he said. “But animals are really
good at moving in all kinds of places. So, the
questions for me are, ‘How they are able
to do that? And how might we apply that
understanding to building better robots?’”
To answer those questions, Johnson is
creating a Robotic Zoo, a menagerie of ro-
bots that mimic the movement of di;erent
animals. By breaking down the mechanics
of animal movement, he hopes to learn how
to build robots that can handle a variety of
“Most animals use between two and eight
legs, some insects even have more than
that—but most artificial systems have been
built with wheels or tracks. It would seem
there is some advantage to be had from legs.
But we haven’t yet figured out exactly what
that advantage is,” he explained.
The challenge, Johnson said, is to break it
all down and see what can be extracted from animal movement to help build
robots that can move through a variety of di;erent environments.
“This isn’t about trying to fabricate biology,” he said. “Our goal is to build
robots that interact with their environment as naturally as animals do,”
Johnson added. ME
KAY T SUKEL, a Houston-based journalist, is the author of The Art of Risk.