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Should we design robots to be more like velociraptors?

Adding a long tails to a robot to stabilize its body could lead to far more agile search-and-rescue machines, a new study reveals.    


This photo illustration shows an agama lizard with the Tailbot robot. (Discovery Channel 4D Anatomy Model, 2008 Fame Master Ent. Ltd.).

Thomas Libby, Evan Chang-Siu and Pauline Jennings. Courtesy of PolyPEDAL Lab & CiBER/UC Berkeley

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Meat-eating dinosaurs like Velociraptor may have been quite the acrobats, using their tails to land aerial maneuvers safely, say scientists studying today's leaping lizards.

Long-tailed robots built as part of this work could help inspire a new generation of maneuverable search-and-rescue droids, the researchers add.

More than 40 years ago, scientists proposed that Velociraptor and other predatory dinosaurs used their tails to stabilize their bodies during jumps or similar rapid or irregular movements, helping make them active, agile hunters. The idea is that the raptors used their tails much as tightrope walkers use balancing poles — tightrope walkers tilt the poles to make their bodies lean in the opposite direction of the tilt, and the thought was that the extinct reptiles bent their tails to control the orientation of their bodies as they leapt.

Researchers have since found that swinging appendages can help lemurs, cats, kangaroo rats and even humans with their walking and acrobatics. However, while some studies suggested the same apparently holds true for geckos during climbing and gliding, others hinted that lizards that had lost their tails might not only experience no change in performance, but actual improvements, calling into question the idea that tails are useful for balancing.

To address this controversy, scientists analyzed red-headed Agama lizards (Agama agama), which are very good jumpers and are notably capable of landing safely. The scientists shot video of the reptiles making running leaps toward a vertical wall. The horizontal platforms they jumped from had varying surfaces, from slippery to sandpaper-like.


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