When it comes to building robots, bigger, faster and more complex often seems to be the direction many manufacturers are taking. It’s also not unusual for robot builders to take inspiration from nature, with one developer, Boston Dynamics, grabbing headlines with their canine-inspired dog bots.
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, however, have gone in a slightly different direction. They wanted to create an environmental monitoring robot that was deliberately slow, simple and prone to long periods of just hanging around in the sun. So what better animal is there to draw inspiration from than the sloth?
The aptly named SlothBot was designed to answer a primary issue with modern robotics. The bigger, faster and more feature-laden robots become, the more energy they require to perform their functions. This means robots must either be tethered to a permanent energy source, or have limited battery lives. Both of these solutions are impractical for environmental monitoring which often requires technology to be out in remote locations for long periods of time.
Instead, SlothBot aims to do things slowly and steadily, therefore preserving energy and allowing for it to be of more use to conservationists and ecological researchers involved in long-term studies. As Magnus Egerstedt, the Steve W. Chaddick School Chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and principal developer for Slothbot, explains:
"In robotics, it seems we are always pushing for faster, more agile and more extreme robots. But there are many applications where there is no need to be fast. You just have to be out there persistently over long periods of time, observing what's going on.”
The robot’s similarities to a sloth don’t begin and end with speed, however. The SlothBot can also navigate its terrain in a manner very similar to its namesake, operating just below the tree canopy and moving through the trees to monitor the different conditions.
To do this, the team set up a series of cables at their test lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The SlothBot consists of two 3D printed bodies containing a driving motor and wheel which runs along a cable, allowing it traverse them. Each body is connected to the other via an articulated hinge, that can allow the SlothBot to transition through junctions between cables smoothly. Going slow and steady not only decreases the energy required, but also increases the accuracy of these manoeuvres. When the SlothBot is starting to feel low on energy, it can simply move into a sunny spot and recharge using two photovoltaic panels.
Traditional environmental monitoring, especially in remote or hard to reach places has often required extensive resources, manpower and experience. Drones and wheeled vehicles have helped alleviate this, however both are unsuited for long term monitoring due to limited battery life, the need of human intervention and difficulty navigating certain terrain. SlothBot can basically be left to "hangout" in a location, gathering information over a period of weeks and months without the need for direct human interference.
The next test for the SlothBot is to monitor conditions at the Atlanta Botanical Garden in a more extensive test of its abilities - where it will also be kitted out with a rather cute "sloth-like" shell. Ultimately, the SlothBot looks set to head to Costa Rica to monitor the very creatures which have inspired it. Series of cables have already been set up in the Costa Rican jungle to facilitate the movement of cocoa on plantations and sloths already use them as a "super highway" to navigate the canopy. The team hopes SlothBot will become part of a long-term study in the area to more extensively understand conditions in a habitat that has often been difficult for humans to explore - and is dwindling in some parts of the globe.
Although the SlothBot’s form of locomotion and design purpose is rather specific - since it requires cables to be in place - Egerstedt’s “theory of slowness” in robotics could have more widespread implications. For example, it has already grabbed the attention of the U.S. Office of Naval Research - who funded the project - perhaps due to the ability of super-energy efficient robots to operate in inhospitable or hard to reach locations - such as the seabed. Hopefully, such technology can also become part of broader conservation efforts in similar terrain or perhaps even in our cities as part of burgeoning smart city concepts which require efficient, long-term applications of digital technologies.