Insect-inspired robots that can jump, fly and climb are almost here

Roboticists who designed these robots, called Tribots, took inspiration from the real-life trap-jaw ant's locomotion strategies.

(CNN)Picture a robot.

Did you envision a giant machine assembling cars, Data from "Star Trek," C-3PO from "Star Wars" or "The Terminator"? Most of us would probably think of something massive -- or at least human size.
But a whole arm of robotics is focusing on bug-size 'bots (and smaller).
    It's not just the size of tiny insects that are inspiring roboticists; it's also the many complex tasks and physical feats that comprise the everyday lives of many fleas, flies and other six-legged creatures.
      The question isn't only how big and powerful we can make a machine, but how small and savvy. What might humans be capable of if we could command a tiny army of simple machines? How could we use robots that could fly, skim across the water, hop to the ceiling and even swarm?
      That's exactly the kind of question roboticists like Zeynep Temel, an assistant professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is asking -- and answering -- in her lab.
      Tiny robots would be useful in medical applications -- for targeted drug delivery or simple surgeries sans incisions, according to Temel. Miniature robots could also save lives in dangerous places like minefields, or during search and rescue: "If you have small bug-robots," she said, it's possible to do "more efficient -- and safer -- rescue operations" following an avalanche or earthquake where it's dangerous for humans or even larger robots to tread.
        Small robots that can work together, like ants or bees do, would also be ideal for exploring other planets like Mars, again keeping humans away from risky, unexplored situations:
        "I hope my research will be used to make modular robots that can self-assemble, to be used by astronauts in unknown environments to lend a helping hand," said Jamie Paik, founder and director of the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
        Shown here is the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab's concept use of a multifunctional, modular origami robot called Mori.
        These are just some of the important applications bio-inspired robots could be used for, and that's why roboticists at the worldwide major robotics labs are dedicated to exploring the class Insecta.
        Ants are a favorite inspiration -- they're able to lift bulky and heavier-than-they-are loads and travel quickly in sandy deserts as well as woodlands. These insects also work together to create bridges and surmount obstacles.
        Trap-jaw ants served as a model for a team that developed a battery-powered, palm-size robot that can "adapt to an environment and can collaborate," Paik, a member of the team, said.
        In the natural world, trap-jaw ants do all the ant things — and they can also snap their powerful jaws at the incredible speed of 90 miles per hour to jump away from predators. Paik and her team used the same mechanics to help give the robots a variety of movements, including "vertical jumping for height, horizontal jumping for distance, somersault jumping to clear obstacles, walking on textured terrain and crawling on flat surfaces," according to the paper's abstract.
        Like the ants they are based on, each unit is completely autonomous, but they can communicate and thereby work together via a simple transmitter.
        Another advantage to tiny, fairly simple autonomous robots? They're cheap, compared to a larger robot. "We can throw out multiples of them, and if we lose or break some, they can still execute a given task," Paik said.

        Insect adaptations for high-tech solutions

        Why are insects such useful inspiration for roboticists? They give scientists a starting point, Paik said, that proves what's possible -- such as jumping 100 times their height like a flea, climbing vertical obstacles (or even upside down) or packing full-size wings under a petite hard shell like a ladybug. "These are nature's optimized designs," she said.
        Temel backed up Paik's point -- while she said she's still a bit personally afraid of insects (the live ones), she has nonetheless come to admire how well they solve so many difficult problems.