Bio Inspiration

Published February 11, 2018


When reading about bio-inspired robot design, it seems that a common approach for a roboticist to take is as follows:

  • specify a need or problem (robot needs to move across variety of terrain)
  • look to nature for systems which adequately fill this need (snake can slither across variety of terrain)
  • develop mechanical system inspired by biological system (snake robot)

This approach allows roboticists to find specific mechanical systems to apply to their designs, but does not necessarily encourage them to look to nature as a source for inspiration more broadly. Because I do not have a specific need or problem, and because I am interested in understanding how certain design methodologies allow for certain types of expression, I wanted to look at natural behavior patterns as a possible source of bio-inspired design. Could we approach behaviors in the natural world as inspiration for our robotic systems’ design? Would this approach allow for robots which reflected their natural inspiration in more fundamental ways than their mechanical systems? Or are behaviors and the mechanical means to carry out these behaviors so inter-related in nature that this approach proves identical to the first? What I hope is that by looking to behavioral inspiration, rather than mechanical inspiration, designers will find fruitful avenues for exploration.


Burrowing owl photo from Providence Raptors (more great photos at link).

Many types of animals burrow in the earth for food or shelter. Rodents are probably most commonly associated with burrowing, as well as certain insects, but many other animals have been known to burrow. This behavior allows animals to avoid predators and extreme temperatures found on the surface, and to rear children in a protected space. Some burrowing animals even go so far as to create complex architectural features such as passive ventilation.

What aspects of this behavior could contribute to a robot’s design? One possible avenue of exploration is a robot that, rather than being able to withstand environmental extremes, could understand and avoid them. Imagine a Mars rover which, when confronted with a sandstorm, could create its own shelter rather than relying on adequate shielding. This type of rover would need to be able to dig in Martian soil, and, as a result of this ability, could carry less weight on the trip. It would be able to use the burrow as a ‘home base’ from which to travel and conduct experiments, storing equipment in this location to allow for quicker travel to-and-from interesting sites further afield. Rather than playing the proverbial snail (with his house on his back) – a slow and ungainly design which sacrifices speed for the safety under a shell – this rover would quickly move in and out of its burrow, relying on the safety of a home as a way of reducing weight.