UC Berkeley researchers were interested in studying how lizards use their tails to stabilize themselves as they jump. Instead of landing face-first in the dirt, lizards can use their tails to keep their noses up as they land. Lizards swing their tails upward and actively change the angle of their tail in order to keep from tumbling head over heels when they jump, but getting the angle right is a little more complicated.
In order to better study this use of tails, the researchers came up with an innovative robot design. They added a tail to their robot "Tailbot," which is essentially a toy car with a tail attached. It turns out that robot design could become much more than just a research tool.
Team leader Robert J Full of UC Berkeley states, "We showed for the first time that lizards swing their tail up or down to counteract the rotation of their body, keeping them stable. Inspiration from lizard tails will likely lead to far more agile search-and-rescue robots, as well as ones having greater capability to more rapidly detect chemical, biological or nuclear hazards.”
Tailbot's tail can be maneuvered in the air to help stabilize the robot as it jumps from one surface to another, in the same way a lizard stabilizes itself while leaping. Sensors detect the orientation of Tailbot, and swing the tail upward to keep it from nose-diving.
As you can see from the video below, the research team videoed how the lizard uses its tail, then came up with a mathematical model that could be used in conjunction with Tailbot to better understand the lizard's movement. But now, Tailbot could be inspiration for advances in inertial assisted robotics.
"Similar robots could eventually be used, the scientists say, to search for bodies buried underneath earthquake rubble, or to land a spacecraft on low-gravity asteroids, or - as the Army suggests - to sneak inside buildings where enemy combatants lurk," notes the SFGate.
Stanford robotics engineer Mark Cutkosky told SFGate that the new work with the Tailbot provides insight for the next generation of mobile robots, as adding a tail and a flexible spine could boost maneuverability at high speeds.
So, thanks to the study of leaping lizards and their incredible use of their tails, we may see leaping robots in the future.