Forget traditional robots that look like humans, these days robots come in all different shapes and sizes. But it’s not only their appearance that is changing – robotics researchers are also thinking very differently about how the function, as discussed in a review this week in the journal Science. Whereas the focus used to be on getting robots to perform specific tasks, like packaging chocolates in a manufacturing plant, researchers are now looking at creating more complex machines that can deal with unpredictable circumstances.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that they are turning to living creatures for inspiration. The video below shows some robots that have recently been developed: a salamander robot moves from water to land just like the real animal would, Waalbot walks on walls using an adhesive inspired by the fibers on geckos’ feet and a sophisticated Japanese robot is made of modules that can communicate with each other to tackle whatever obstacle it’s confronted with.

Although some of these robots look like the real thing, it’s not about replicating nature but rather understanding the basic principles of biology and transferring those that are most useful. Creating a model is often a good first step: to make the salamander robot, for example, researchers replicated the animal’s spinal cord and used a similar system to control their robot’s movement.

But there is still a lot to learn about animal behaviour and how brain and body interact with each other in a changing environment. Can you think of some interesting animal behaviours that might be good inspiration for robot makers?

Sandrine Ceurstemont, online content editor