Running Birds May Inspire Speedy Robots of the Future

First Posted: Oct 30, 2014 07:54 AM EDT

Determined to create robots that can run, scientists have turned toward an animal for a source of inspiration. They've taken a closer look at running birds in order to examine the physics behind how these feathered creatures sprint so quickly.

While birds are primarily designed for flight, some species that live on land are some of the most sophisticated runners of any two-legged land animals. This ability to sprint across the ground may have been evolving since the time of the dinosaurs.

"Birds appear to be the best of bipedal terrestrial runners, with a speed and agility that may trace back 230 million years to their dinosaur ancestors," said Jonathan Hurst, one of the researchers, in a news release.

Running birds include species that range from tiny quails to emus and ostriches. Most of these running birds, though not all of them, still possess the ability to fly. Yet they spend most of their time on the ground.

"These animals don't care that they appear a little unstable or have a waver in their gait," said Hurst. "Their real goal is to limit peak forces, avoid falling, be safe and be as efficient as possible. If their upper body seems to lurch around a little as a result, that's okay. What they are accomplishing is really quite elegant."

In order to better understand these runners and how they function, the researchers studied five species of birds and developed a computer model that closely matched their behavior. They believe that this will allow them to create robots that can mimic this type of running.

"Evolution has shaped running birds into all different sizes and skeletal structures," said Christian Hubicki, co-author of the new study. "But we found their behavior in how they run is essentially the same. We should ultimately be able to encode this understanding into legged robots so the robots can run with more speed and agility in rugged terrain. These insights may also help us understand the walking and running behaviors of all the common ancestors involved, including theropod dinosaurs such as the velociraptor."

The findings are a huge step forward when it comes to "teaching" robots how to run like birds. This, in turn, may result in faster and more efficient robots in the future.

"The running robots of the future are going to look a lot less robotic," said Hurst. "They will be more fluid, like the biological systems in nature. We're not necessarily trying to copy animals, but we do want to match their capabilities."

The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

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