Birds (and dinosaurs) have a thing or two to teach running robots

Robots often draw their forms from nature. When building machines that are designed to run, researchers have in the past looked to cheetahs and even tumbleweeds. But new research highlights an unusual candidate to make robots faster and more stable: birds.

An Oregon State University team found that birds that primarily live on the ground, instead of in water or in the air, are actually excellent runners, likely due to the fact their gait has been evolving since their dinosaur ancestors lived 230 million years ago.

The secret to their running is a variance in speed and a bouncing upper body. To keep their path and maneuver around or over obstacles, a bird may slow down and speed up several times. That’s very different from how many animals–and robots–run. Robots, for example, are generally programmed to always run at the same speed. That can actually be more inefficient than varying speed when they have many obstacles to consider.

A turkey jumps over an obstacle. Photo by Oregon State University

A turkey jumps over an obstacle. Photo by Oregon State University

“These animals don’t care that they appear a little unstable or have a waver in their gait,” Oregon State University associate professor Jonathan Hurst said in a release. “Their real goal is to limit peak forces, avoid falling, be safe and be as efficient as possible. If their upper body seems to lurch around a little as a result, that’s okay. What they are accomplishing is really quite elegant.”

The two things birds care most about are conserving energy and avoiding injuries. If they fail to do either, they open themselves up to predators. Their goofy gaits balance that with speed. Robots have similar interests. Out in the field, there aren’t many resources to fix a robot if it breaks. They also have limited fuel from which to draw.

“The running robots of the future are going to look a lot less robotic,” Hurst said in the release.¬†“They will be more fluid, like the biological systems in nature. We’re not necessarily trying to copy animals, but we do want to match their capabilities.”