Not Science Fiction: 11 Real-Life Robotic Animals

Robotic creatures running amok in human society can incite mental images of a dystopian society, where some hummingbirds are actually surveillance cameras, and massive robo-mules march across rocky terrain like something out of Terminator. Indeed, many of these 11 robot animals were developed for military use – but some could potentially detect pollution underwater, or save your life in the event of a disaster.

DARPA Record-Setting Cheetah

(images via: darpa)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is responsible for many of the most amazing robotic animals that have been revealed to the general public in recent years, and that’s no surprise, considering they carry out advanced research for the United States Department of Defense. Their Cheetah robot broke its own record of 18 miles per hour in September 2012, reaching a peak speed of 28.3 mph. This project aims to enhance robot movement and capabilities so that creatures like this can be used for emergency response, humanitarian assistance and other defense missions.

“Modeling the robot after a cheetah is evocative and inspiring, but our goal is not to copy nature. What DARPA is doing with its robotics programs is attempting to understand and engineer into robots certain core capabilities that living organisms have refined over millennia of evolution: efficient locomotion, manipulation of objects and adaptability to environments,” said Gill Pratt, DARPA program manager.

DARPA Cargo-Carrying Military Mule

(images via: darpa)

This robotic mule can literally take a lot of weight off the backs of soldiers on foot, who often have to carry up to 100 pounds of gear. The DARPA LS3 ‘Legged Squad Support System’ can haul 400 pounds of cargo and navigate tricky terrain, crossing streams and climbing wooded slopes. Programmed to respond to voice commands, the mules follow their human guides. They also function as traveling charge portals for gadgets like phones and lights.

Self-Guided Fish Senses Pollution

(images via: national geographic)

Swimming just as convincingly as a real fish, this robot created by computer scientists at the University of Essex in England uses artificial intelligence and built-in sensors to avoid obstacles underwater and respond to environmental changes. The project leaders envision it being used to detect leaks in oil pipelines, and explore the sea floor. It currently has a five-hour battery, but ideally it will be able to join its brethren at a charging station when its energy reserves run low.

FastRunner Ostrich

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Inspired by the fastest animals on two legs, the FastRunner by DARPA is a robot capable of running 20 miles per hour on flat ground and 10mph on moderately rough terrain. With its built-in cameras, this robot could easily be featured in a film about a dystopian future.

Stanford StickyBot Gecko

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The sticky feet of a gecko inspired a robot that can climb smooth surfaces in much the same way. Stanford’s StickyBot is the product of five years of research, in which scientists studied the ability of geckos to climb glass walls and other surfaces with ‘dry adhesion’. Gecko toes are covered in hundreds of ridges, each of which bristles with millions of individual hairs 10 times thinner than that of a human. These split hairs are so tiny, they interact with the molecules of the surface the gecko climbs. The researchers came up with a rubber-like material covered in tiny polymer hairs.

Boston Dynamics BIGDOG Robot

(images via: boston dynamics)

The size of a large dog, Boston Dynamics’ BigDog is about three feet long, weighs 240 pounds and has four legs that are articulated like an animal’s. It’s able to stay balanced, navigate itself and adjust the way that it moves depending on conditions. It can even move in snow or water, climb muddy hiking trails and right itself when it’s pushed over.

Festo SmartBird

(images via: festo)

Technology innovator Festo studied the flight of birds to produce a lightweight, aerodynamic robot with extreme agility. The SmartBird is inspired specifically by the herring gull and can start, fly and land autonomously. In addition to flapping up and down, the robot bird’s wings can twist, giving it a greater range of movement.


DARPA also created this snake, which can swim around underwater.

DARPA Hummingbird

(images via: darpa)

This fluttering hummingbird hovers, dives, climbs and darts so seamlessly, you wouldn’t guess that it’s not real until it stops moving. DARPA’s hummingbird weighs less than a AA battery and relays real-time video from a tiny on-board camera back to its operator. The military intends to use it to get an unobtrusive view of threats inside or outside a building from a safe distance.

Biomimetic Underwater Lobster

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Robotic lobsters like this one can crawl along the sea floor, looking for mines and other dangers or exploring places that aren’t safe for human divers.

Cyborg Cockroach

(images via: national geographic)

Could cyborg cockroaches save your life? As gross as they are, cockroaches can survive all sorts of conditions, and when they’re controlled into remote-controlled ‘bio-bots’, they could help emergency responders locate survivors in a disaster. Scientists anesthetize the roaches and then insert electrodes near their antennae. Medical-grade epoxy is used to secure tiny magnets to their backs so a ‘backpack’ with a wireless control system can be mounted. The backpacks contain a locater beacon and a microphone to pick up cries for help.