Engineering The Animal Kingdom

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, the future is here. In so many ways, our lives are changing and being enabled by technology. Google Voice (Google’s version of Siri) is so accurate at answering simple questions that it leaves me shaking my head and smiling, even after months of using it. Just this morning, I was with a friend and couldn’t remember an author’s name through my brain fog. I double tapped my screen and asked “Who wrote The Cassini Division?”. Within seconds a voice told me that Ken McLeod ( of the clan McLeod) wrote the Cassini division and proceeded to pop up a “card” with his picture, name, links to a wiki and other articles. This is ridiculous and just one of many examples that we are indeed approaching the singularity (more on that in other posts).

One development that is almost equally exciting/frightening is the fast development of robotics.  It is a field that is exploding. According to ABI Research:

The market for consumer robots was $1.6 billion in 2012, dominated by the task and entertainment segments. This will grow to $6.5 billion in 2017 and will still be dominated by the same segments, with security/telepresence becoming more of a significant third segment. iRobot is still the main player, but more Asian-based companies are coming out with competing products and newer products like window-cleaning robots. “We are seeing more personal robot R&D from Western companies and more task robot development from Asian companies,” noted research director Philip Solis, “which is a reversal of past development trends.”

Application processors and the array of sensors used in smartphones and media tablets have achieved great economies of scale for components that consumer robotics will leverage. The market for processors, microcontrollers, sensors, and physical components including actuators, servos, and manipulators was a little over $700 million in 2012 and will grow by five times that amount by 2017. The semiconductor portion of that is well over a third and will grow as products become more complex and capable.

Robotics is starting fulfill needs everywhere from mass production, prosthetics to even mimicking animals.  It is this latter one that we’ll focus on here.

Biomimetic is a term that describes how designers and engineers take their cues from nature and animals to solve problems from solar collecting to efficient motion.  Over the last 10-20 years, the number of credible copies of animals by scientists and engineers has become more and more realistic.  While there are many companies/universities working in this field, Boston Dynamics is always the first one that comes to my mind.  They are partially funded by DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).  Their description on their website is very apt. Boston Dynamics builds advanced robots with remarkable behavior: mobility, agility, dexterity and speed. The breadth of robots BD is developing is truly awe inspiring and the steady progress they’ve made over the years is sobering.  I will embed a few examples here:

Big Dog was one of the first videos I saw that truly blew me away back in 2008.  It is built as a pack mule for military personnel. Its mission is to follow and haul heavy loads so the soldiers/marines don’t have to.  While it’s definitely a prototype, this was the first time I saw a robot that behaved and adjusted like an animal would.  Make sure you at least watch to the point where the engineer kicks it and it adjusts itself to keep on walking.

I hadn’t heard about any progress from the Big Dog team in awhile… and then THIS video came out this past year.  They added an arm and an ability to throw cement blocks!

Now I don’t know about you, but this is starting to get a little frightening.  Imagine a Big Dog chasing you down the street as it offloads cement block ammo from its back and fires it off to explosive effect around you.  Now you’re only saving grace is that you can probably outrun this thing, but then (if you’ve been curious) you see one of BD’s OTHER “pet” projects – the cheetah.  Like the beautifully shot national geographic video below, this cheetah has been designed to replicate how nature has evolved this big cat to sprint so effectively.

Cheetahs on the Edge–Director’s Cut from Gregory Wilson on Vimeo.



Running away from this beast is no longer an option.  Soon we may find ourselves with robots as useful as they are dangerous.  Half-Life 2 fans may be thinking about “Dog” from that game – a robotic “pet” that could understand speech and lift and throw cars if necessary.


These are just the very FEW of the developments from just one company funded by DARPA.  If you want to be truly creeped out then watch this PETMAN demo, which shows just how eerily close we are to mimicking the human animal.

It could be only 10 years from now that we see robotic animals/creatures as an obvious/inevitable fact of life.  It hasn’t even been 10 years since the “smartphone” appeared and now a sizeable portion of the planet has one.  Revel in the wonderment of innovation in the field today.

If this has sparked/re-ignited your interest in this field, please comment below with some of your favorite recent developments in the industry.

I have included a few more links to popular science and others if you wanted a quick way to see other amazing robotic creatures.


Cat Robot

Fish and Others


Why Build Robot Animals

Popular Science