Robotic Crocodiles

The Kroc is a realistic robotic crocodile. We don’t know anyone who wants a crocodile in their factory or warehouse, so you may be wondering why anyone would work to create a robot crocodile in the first place.

The simple answer is that it was made for TV. But a new article by the developers of the Kroc gives a more complex and interesting answer. We know that biomimicry is common in robotics research. Humanoid robots are currently grabbing the headlines, but we are not the best at everything. Robots that jump like fleas or run like cheetahs or change shape like octopuses are just a few of the machines that have taken a leaf from the books of creatures other than humans.

Sometimes they’re spies. If you want to get completely natural footage of fish in their natural habitats, disguising your camera within a robot makes sense. That’s what the BBC figured for these crocodiles. The program was actually called “Spy in the Wild.”

Sometimes these robots are not intended to perform like robots in a work environment, but are taking the place of animals in studies of locomotion and other details of the animals’ morphology and life cycles. Building a crocodile offers a lot of insight into how a crocodile operates.

And then, sometimes surprisingly, these mechanical animals sometimes have additional uses outside of the research context. The Kroc, for example, could move better on rough terrain than a wheeled robot. That could open up new vistas for search and rescue operations, mining, and perhaps more.

Serious questions

The researchers came up with some important questions. “Can affordable, rapid robot prototyping and off-the-shelf components provide enough locomotion functionality and reliability for a biorobot to endure under harsh conditions of a natural environment?” was one. Humanoid robots are now being made in mass quantities, but bio informed robots, as the researchers called their robotic animals, are usually made painstakingly one at a time in a lab.

The researchers were pleased with the quick fabrication time — one month instead of the six months they usually spend preparing a robot. This did not include placement of actuators and various other jobs, but it was still fast by comparison. However, the robots only lasted for a couple of weeks. At the end of that time, they had only one remaining robot, cobbled together from the parts of the ones that had been destroyed during fieldwork in Uganda.

This is clearly not a workable situation for an industrial, rescue, or other working robot.

It was still a triumph, however. The BBC was happy and the researchers learned a lot. “Ultimately,” they concluded, “our work will increase human understanding of other living beings while attempting to improve human tools for solving problems.”