This week, robots from the finest robo-research institutions in Europe are descending on London's Science Museum for a one-off exhibition called Robot Safari. Unlike industrial robots, all the robots on this unique safari use the principles of animal movement to find new ways of overcoming engineering problems. We went to the Science Museum to meet the inventors and their machines, which will eventually become our terrifying overlords.
The Bat-Bot (above) is the brainchild of the Centre for Automata and Robotics at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid in Spain. By copying the finger-like bones in a bat's wing, it's able to change the shape of its wings during flight. This wing structure allows bats to manoeuvre more quickly and accurately than birds, which is handy if you need to catch insects in mid-air, in the dark. Bat-bot is currently limited to some basic rubbery flapping, but it's only a matter of time before its terrifying screech heralds nightfall in the giant prison-cities the robots construct to contain us.
At first glance, boasting that your robot is 'the fastest sub-30kg quadruped robot in the world' is a bit like claiming you're 'the tallest one-armed Belgian in Dorking'; it's so specific that you wonder if there's anyone else in the same category. And while Cheetah-cub (from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland) runs at a relatively modest 5.1km/h, that's six full body lengths per second. Scale its lunchbox-sized body up to the size of the defence robots currently being built by Boston Dynamics in the US, and its cat-like legs will easily be able to outrun you and your pitiful band of human rebels.
The engineers at Switzerland's EPFL took X-ray videos of salamanders and studied the way their skeletons moved before recreating that movement in Pleurobot, a five-foot-long robot salamander that will one day escape from their laboratory and establish its own kingdom in the sewers beneath Lausanne. Until that happens, Pleurobot's sprawling posture is of interest to both roboticists and paleontologists, who are using it to study how ancient amphibians might have made their first steps onto land.
In the film Runaway (1984), Tom Selleck plays a renegade cop who fights an army of venomous robot spiders controlled by Gene Simmons (yes, really). Robo Spyder can react to its environment, avoiding obstacles and following sounds, and is designed to help children learn to build and program their own 'bots. Which means it won't be long before some little scamp builds an army of Robo Spyders, fixes a syringe full of bright green poison to each one and sends them out to fulfil Gene Simmons' devilish masterplan.
These are a couple of examples from a number of aquatic robots you can see at Robot Safari. The Jessiko robots, by Robotswim SARL in France, are small glowing fishbots that move in an autonomous shoal. The idea is that this will help scientists understand schooling behaviour in fish - charming, naiive scientists who see no risk in teaching robots to hunt in packs.
The iTuna might look more like a sculpture than a fish, but it's a good demonstration of some very interesting technology: the skeleton of what looks like clear plastic holding the rings together is actually a a two-sided strip of artificial muscle. When current is passed through one side, the muscle contracts, bending the tail in that direction, allowing the iTuna to swim as noiselessly as a real fish.
If you fancy getting acquainted with the robo-beasts in the vain hope they'll show mercy when the time comes, head over to the Science Museum website - the exhibition's free, but it's only on from this Friday, November 30, until Sun December 1.