US Army Turns to Jumping Squirrels for Robot Inspiration

For most people, it’s fun to watch cute squirrels jump from branch to branch or tree to tree. However, the US Army believes that understanding the little animals’ thought process whenever they leap “will help scientists develop more agile robots.”

According to army researchers, understanding how animals like squirrels assess risk and personal limitations can help develop more nimble autonomous robots. It can also help the military in missions that require fast and agile movement in otherwise inaccessible environments.

To research the rodents’ behavior, the US Army has partnered with the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Dean Culver of the US Army Research Laboratory said that the team at Berkeley is “challenging the comfort zone of today’s robotic design in a very clever way.”

“Studying organisms’ behavior, like jumping squirrels, lets the engineering community ask fascinating questions about an autonomous agent trying to navigate an uncertain environment,” Culver added. He cited additional questions the study aims to answer, such as the stimuli responsible for learning.

Observing Squirrel Balance and Agility

In the experiment conducted in a eucalyptus grove on the UC Berkeley campus, free-roaming fox squirrels were enticed into “sketchy situations where they had to decide whether to leap for a peanut or let it go.”

Researchers found that the flimsier the branch, the more careful and calculating a squirrel is. Depending on the environment, their decision-making process concerns where to jump, land, and how to make the jump.

“Learning from squirrels the limitations of improvisation with a given controller architecture and compliant actuators will help engineers understand how to design a robot controller and actuators to maximize improvisational capabilities,” Culver said.

“To get to that next step for more agile robots, we first have to observe and quantify the ideas of adjustment and improvisation, which this research provides.”

Full research details can be found here.

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