Robots may need a long tail if they really want to walk on two legs

In the future we will have robots – you knew that since you were a child. Robots are the future and they will go with us everywhere. Well, not really everywhere, if they do not learn to walk on uneven terrain. Scientists from University of Queensland now think that robots will need lizard-like tails for ‘off-road’ travel.  That is if we need them to walk on two legs.

Gippsland Water Dragon has a long tail, which helps it smoothly run on two legs through some rough terrain. Image credit: jjron via Wikimedia (GFDL 1.2)

The most futuristic robots in our imagination are almost exclusively bipedal. There is a reason why humans are bipedal – it helps us stand tall, see further and easily navigate all kinds of terrain. We can walk where the best off-road vehicles get stuck. Scientists wanted to see how bipedal mobility can be brought into the world of robots, so they decided to use slow-motion cameras to capture the nuanced movement of eight species of Australian agamid lizards that run on two legs. This rather simple technique challenged existing mathematical models based on the animals’ movement.

Lizards are a little bit like fast motorcycles – they are rear wheel drive, essentially. Rapid acceleration causes them to start running on two legs. Much like a motorcycle popping a wheelie, Australian lizard lifts off his front feet off the ground and runs like crazy. Of course, it is not easy to do, but it is especially difficult when the speed is not that high. Scientists noticed that some lizards are able to run bipedally longer and at lower speeds by moving their body back and winging their tail up. Scientists are not sure why lizards evolved to run that way, but they think that these small reptiles might just be avoiding obstacles. A better visibility could also be a reason – by lifting their heads lizards are able to see a little further. In any way, scientists recommend memorizing these lessons, because we may need to teach our robots these tricks.

Bipedal motion has its advantages. It is not as stable, but it is faster in open grasslands. Lead author Christofer Clemente said: “If obstacle negotiation is indeed improved with bipedal locomotion, then we have shown how the tail and body can be moved to enable it sooner and for longer. Maybe adding a tail to robots can help them go ‘off-road’ sooner”. But, of course, scientists are not just thinking about robots all the time – they are also considering dinosaurs. It is believed that first dinosaurs were walking on all four, but why did they evolve to have a bipedal motion?

Humans are very good on two feet – no other bipedal animal can do what we can. We can climb trees, jump, slide, kick, run, turn. We even don’t have a tail! But robots may need one – at least in the beginning problems with stability off-road are going to be a significant obstacle.


Source: University of Queensland


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