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Snails inspire design for state-of-the-art robots

  • Story Highlights
  • Anette Hosoi studies snail's sticky slime on their muscular underbellies
  • The slime allows movement in every direction -- upside down and backwards
  • Hosoi and her students hope to try to make a robot that can do the same
  • Hosoi has turned to animals as a source of biological inspiration
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By Lara Farrar
Special to CNN
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London, England (CNN) -- This is the time of year that Anette Hosoi starts collecting snails again.

The RiSE robot is biologically modeled after a cockroach and gecko and is capable of climbing all kinds of terrains.

Anette has studied snails so that she could learn how to create a composition that allows robot to climb in every direction.

They like to come out, she says, on humid summer days, especially after heavy rain. During the winter, they prefer to hide underground.

Hosoi finds her snails slithering about on dewy leaves and around wet rocks. Sometimes friends even bring her a few from their gardens.

At one point she had around 200 -- not because she captured that many but because, as she would learn, the slippery mollusks are proficient procreators.

Hosoi collects snails not to keep them as pets or to cook escargot but instead to place them in a foliage-filled glass terrarium inside her lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she works as an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

There, Hosoi and her students study the snails, or, more specifically, the sticky slime on their muscular underbellies and try to figure out how its composition allows the creatures to move in every direction -- upside down, sideways and backwards -- on almost any surface -- tree bark, brick walls and windows.

Once they think they have an idea of how the snails slip and slide around, then Hosoi and her students try to make a robot that can do the same.

"We thought, 'wouldn't it be kind of cool if we could build a robot with the same versatility as snails?'" Hosoi told CNN. "We like to think of them as nature's all-terrain vehicles."

Hosoi is part of a growing group of engineers around the world who are turning not only to snails but also other animals, like cockroaches and crickets, as a source of biological inspiration for designing new robots capable of going places and accomplishing tasks that traditional droids have not been able to do before.

After studying the fluid dynamics of snail slime, which, Hosoi says, is similar to mayonnaise, she and her students were able to build their so-called RoboSnail.

The robot (or snailbot) is comprised of moveable segments that ripple on top of a thin layer of synthetic snail sludge, and, just like its living counterpart, is able to climb up walls and stick to ceilings.

Future models of the mechanical mollusk could be used for invasive surgeries or to conduct tests in hard to reach places like oil wells thousands of feet underground, said Hosoi.

Other MIT engineers have designed robotic turtles and even a robotic fish, dubbed RoboTuna.

"You can't get away with just copying the animals," Hosoi told CNN. "You also have to understand what the key features are that are important in allowing the animal to achieve what it does."

To gain this kind of understanding, many engineers have been teaming up with biologists, like Robert Full.

In his lab at the University of California, Berkeley, Full studies the biomechanics behind animal movement, trying to identify which species are the best at executing specific types of motion, such as running, climbing or crawling and then attempting to pinpoint exactly what biological features makes these creatures so skilled at what they do.

He studies the animals by watching them run on a tiny treadmill-like apparatus or recording the way they manipulate their bodies when they fall off vertical surfaces. Occasionally, as with his cockroach studies, he might even remove a leg to watch how the insect manages to maneuver its body minus an appendage. "We are so careful in taking care of the animals because if we don't, they don't give us their secrets," said Full.

Full shares his hypothesis with engineers who test the biological principles on their robots, they are often able to offer biologists new insights into the ways in which animals move, resulting in advancements not only for the field of robotics but for biology, too.

This new type of synergistic interplay recently happened with engineers who designed robots inspired by research that Full had conducted on gecko feet. Full examined how they enabled the lizard to hang onto ceilings or run up walls and other smooth surfaces at lightening speeds of one meter per second.

Full discovered that geckos are able to race up vertical plains so quickly because of millions of tiny hairs containing billions of even tinier split ends on the pads of their feet, which are able to almost instantaneously stick and unstick themselves to surfaces.

His research has resulted in the development of the first self-cleaning, dry adhesive and a number of gecko-like robots, including Stickybot, a mechanized lizard developed by Stanford University engineers that can climb up windows and walls using its own adhesive appendages.

Engineers are already benefitting from Full's discovery as they are finding ways to build climbing robots with better tails that could in the future be used to aid in search-and-rescue operations or even space exploration.

"We can learn from nature in ways we could never do just five or ten years ago," Full told CNN.

"That is in part because as our human technologies take on more of the characteristics of nature, then nature really becomes a much better teacher."

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