But it’s the tiny, manoeuverable invertebrates with an enviable ability to access difficult spaces that defence brains suspect will literally slip under the radar.
America’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has an enviable menagerie of fauna-inspired robots, led by the headless AlphaDog, or Legged Squad Support System. AlphaDog is designed to follow behind a soldier and haul supplies in rough terrain. It can stand upright and pack 180 kilograms for 32 kilometres straight.
But it can’t run as fast as Cheetabot. Designed to “zigzag, chase and evade”, Cheetabot currently runs more than 29 kilometres per hour. But the plans are for a much faster pace and, like AlphaDog, the self-stabilisation systems mean the ’bots can run on uneven surfaces.
Speed and usefulness may be aided by the breakthrough leg development of bipedal Ostrichbot, which was developed by MIT and the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in response to a DARPA brief for a robot able to run a sustained speed of 40 km/h. Dubbed ‘Fastrunner’, this robot’s ostrich-inspired leg structure has a locking knee similar to the leg on a folding table, and that strength plus the weight advantage of just a single motor on each of the sprung legs, means Fastrunner should be able to carry hefty loads with a relatively low energy requirement from its batteries.
But mammal-mimicking robots are the sideshow to the seriously real prospect of micro air vehicles (MAVs) which, in addition to their already proven fly-on-the-wall military and civilian surveillance operations, can survey contaminated disaster sites and penetrate areas inaccessible to humans or larger unmanned vehicles. Ornithoptors – machines that use flapping wings to fly – are the Holy Grail because they are manoeuverable, energy-efficient, can hover, and can conceivably generate their own power.
Studying every flapping form from pterodactyls to bats and hummingbirds, scientists and engineers have developed an operator-controlled 16-centimetre hummingbird drone that can fly backwards, sideways and rotate in either direction and would read on radar as a bird, and a 15-centimetre-long, bat-derived MAV that scavenges its 1 watt of power from solar, wind and vibration sources while monitoring and transmitting sights, sounds and smells, and ideally identifying noxious gases.
Other research involves studying how invertebrates swarm. The ability to effectively swarm means that cheaper, simpler drones can be linked together for mass effect, and one or two in-action failures won’t compromise a mission. Ant robots swarm over terrain leaving markings for other antbots to follow, making them useful for repeat patrolling of an area. A French experiment used swarms of tiny quadrocoptors – multi-rotored drones with the ability to hover – to build a structure with Styrofoam blocks, demonstrating their future usefulness for building and demolishing.
There are years of research ahead before many of these robots have meaningful impact on the way humans do their dirty work and much of their clean work too, but meanwhile a Frankensteinian experiment would turn even the strongest stomach. Researchers have kitted out the hissing Madagascar cockroach with a tiny wireless backpack and contact lines to the antennae and cerci at the end of the abdomen. Zapping the cerci makes the insect move forward, and steering the antennae control which way it turns. Electrical engineer Albert Boskurt explains that designing robots at that scale is very challenging and cockroaches are experts at performing in hostile environments.
The prophetic words of writer Tamara Janz have never been more relevant: “Long after the bomb falls and you and your good deeds are gone, cockroaches will still be here, prowling the streets like armoured cars.”