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Lizard-inspired robots to the rescue

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley draw inspiration from lizards and geckos to develop Tailbot, a new robot that can be used in search-and-rescue missions.

Robert Full lab/UC Berkeley

What is it about lizards and tech? First, they're kicking butt in video games and now, they're influencing robot design.

Leaping lizards and geckos are the inspiration behind a new robot out of the University of California at Berkeley that could lead to more agile search-and-rescue droids in disaster situations.

Led by Robert Full, a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, a group of graduate and undergraduate biology and engineering students found that by adding a "tail" to a remote control car and adjusting the tail's angle, they could correct and stabilize the car's position as it was flying through the air.

Leaping lizards apparently have a lot to teach robots. Robert Full lab/UC Berkeley

The team discovered this by watching how red-headed African Agama lizards used their tails to maneuver themselves while leaping.

In their experiment, the students coaxed the lizards to jump off a ramp onto another platform. However, they deliberately mixed up the surface of the ramp to include slicker turf, resulting in the lizards losing their footing as they launched themselves off the ramp. During those times, the Agama lizards were able to regain their balance and land safely on the other side by swinging their tail upward.

Based on the lizards' movements, the group created a mathematical model used to build Tailbot. They then ran the Tailbot through a similar obstacle course as the lizards maneuvered and adjust the tail's position as it drove off the ramp. When the tail was sloped downward, the car took a nosedive but when slanted upward, the Tailbot remained upright.

Full and his team believe this technology can lead to more effective search-and-rescue robots capable of traversing rubble and uneven surfaces, as well as helping detect chemical, biological or nuclear hazards more rapidly.

As much as this research could help in the future, it also backed a 40-year-old hypothesis that two-legged theropod dinosaurs used their tails for balance as they ran and dodged predators.