Biorobots in the Military

Bats are well known for their ability to navigate in the dark using echolocation. After emitting a sound, these bats can tell the distance, direction, size, surface texture, and material of an object from information in the returning sound wave or echo. Scientists at the U.S. Office of Naval Research are trying to use what they have learned about bat echolocation to improve their own radar systems. Their research has also extended to other types of animals. Lobsters, for example, have a keen sense of smell underwater and can move easily in shallow water. Scientists have created a robotic lobster, called RoboLob-ster, which might one day be used to find and destroy mines (explosive devices used in warfare) in shallow water.

Unimate, worked at a General Motors car plant in the early 1960s. Then, in 1966, researchers at Stanford University in California built Shakey, the first mobile robot created with artificial intelligence (a computer brain that can use reason and learn).

In biorobotics, biologists carefully study animal and insect behavior. Engineers then use what the biologists have learned to build more useful machines that can respond to different environments. For example, when an animal walks, it can alter its movements to climb hills or avoid holes. This ability enables cockroaches, which are very small, to run very long distances over very rough terrain. Researchers have used what they have learned about cockroaches to design six-legged robots that can travel easily over very rough ground. These multi-legged robots may one day be used to explore Mars.

Scientists also have examined the way animals navigate. They have studied the way wasps and bees look back at their nest from different angles as they leave it, in order to find their way back. Researchers in Australia have modeled a camera after that ability. The camera records images of an area and its landmarks as it leaves the area. The images are then used to create a map in a robot's brain that helps it navigate.

Scientists also have designed robots with insect-like antennae (flexible sensory appendages on an insect's head that help it find its way around), so they can follow a scent. These bug-like robots could be used to find people who are lost or to track down dangerous substances, such as explosives or leaking gas. Tiny robots also could be made to act like scouts, traveling into areas that would be too remote, too small, or too dangerous for humans to go into.

Antennae: Small sensory projections on the front section of the head.

Artificial intelligence: Devices that attempt to reproduce or exhibit human-like intelligence and behavior.

Biologist: A scientist who studies biology (the science of living things).

Biorobotics: The use of living organisms to create or modify robots or robotic devices.

Such robots could be used in the military to protect troops from attack or to patrol borders. Flying robots might one day have the same abilities—and be about the same size—as a housefly.

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