That’s what the findings of an interdisciplinary group of UC Berkeley researchers appears to indicate. After studying the ways in which lizards — and probably dinosaurs before them — use their tails to maintain balance when leaping, the team of biologists and engineers has applied that prehistoric technology to a robotic car dubbed Tailbot. Researchers point to a famous scene from the film Jurassic Park, in which a velociraptor leaps from a balcony to a tyrannosaurus skeleton, as an example of their idea.
The cutting-edge work could lead to practical advances in the field of robotics that enable more durable, nimble machines to function in hectic and uncertain situations, including disaster relief missions. In radioactive environments, for example, robots could one day successfully carry out operations too dangerous for human operatives.
“Engineers quickly understood the value of a tail,” Thomas Libby, a team member and Berkeley graduate student in mechanical engineering, told the campus news center. “Robots are not nearly as agile as animals, so anything that can make a robot more stable is an advancement, which is why this work is so exciting.”
Tailbot is equipped with a small gyroscope that detects its angle and sends feedback to the robot’s tail. The tail then adjusts accordingly to rebalance the machine. When dropped nose-down, Tailbot can right itself before dropping a foot, researchers say.
UC Berkeley integrative biology professor Robert Full leads the team of researchers and has studied geckos for the past two decades, analyzing how the lizards’ toe hairs help them climb smooth surfaces such as glass and how their tails help them avoid dangerous falls and slips.
More recently, Full and six students used motion capture technologies to record how the red-headed African Agama lizard uses its tail. When the lizard ran down a low-traction ramp to leap to a nearby surface, the lack of friction before take-off caused it to slip and spin haphazardly. But the lizard used its tail to counteract the imbalance. Full and his team took note, creating a mathematical model to help understand the lizard’s adjustments and apply similar functionality to Tailbot.