All across the world, robots and other digital tools help humans complete myriad tasks. From robot surgeons to AI construction teams, we are developing technology that can do almost anything.
But what about technology specifically designed to help animals? If machines and machine learning are so useful for humans, surely they can benefit other creatures as well. We wanted to explore how tech developers and robotics professionals are designing tools that that help animals and improve animal care. Here’s what we found!
Robo Animals Help Us Learn and Protect
Last year, PBS Nature aired a Spy in the Wild series, where researchers sent out cute robots that resemble the animals they wanted to study. A flock of penguins or pod of dolphins will typically run from humans — or at least stop their natural behavior — but ignore a robot friend that looks and acts like them.
The story behind Spy in the Wild highlights the evolution of robot technology over time. In an article for Rewire, journalist Katie Moritz interviewed one of the producers about how this series came about. It started with the “boulder cam,” a camera disguised as a lump of rock. Then, the developers made more complex robots that moved around and, more importantly, mimicked the movements and behaviors of the animals they interact with.
The first robot, a meerkat, took three months to develop, while the walking crocodile took almost a year to build. This is a great series for families who want to see how nature and robots can work together. The robo-animals look very convincing, too. They can move their heads, twitch their ears, and travel along a small track in a natural walking manner.
These robot decoys do more than just help us record animals in their natural environment, giving us more information on their lives and how they survive. They also actively work to save the species they represent. In an article for Wildtech Mongabay, science writer Julia John shared how robotic decoys across America are helping poaching units catch hunters who take animals that are protected or off season.
“These robo-creatures help understaffed, underfunded and poorly equipped enforcement agencies safely witness poaching firsthand and apprehend hundreds of unauthorized hunters, acquire tens of thousands of dollars in enforcement fines, deter potential violators and save real animals’ lives,” she writes.
Animals Help Us Develop Better Robots
While some professionals are developing robots that look like animals to interact with animals, other engineers are developing robots that look like animals because they’re inspired by their movement.
The German company Festo specializes in bionics, or the design and creation of mechanical systems that are inspired by living organisms. One of their top designs is a Bionic WheelBot, based on the Moroccan flic-flac spider. This spider evades predators and travels across the desert sand by curling itself up and cartwheeling away. The robot does much the same, and developers have suggested these movements can help people in various environments, including deserts, underwater terrain, and even on the surface of Mars.
“Almost any animal you can imagine has been used as inspiration for robots,” Aaron Johnson, roboticist and professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, says. “Rather than try to mimic exactly the same mechanism and behaviors of animals, we try to understand the principles of how the animal does what it does successfully, and apply that to a new [robotic] system.”
The field of bionics is increasingly popular with university students. In one course offered by the University of Southern California, they learn the basics of robot design and engineering, Ashleen Knutsen at USC writes. The students complete a group project where they develop a robot inspired by an animal, and have developed cat-like and crab-like robots based on the way these animals move.
Technology Benefits Zoo Animals
Tech can also help researchers in zoos better care for their animals and create stress-free habitats.
For example, zookeepers want to make sure animals aren’t put in stressful situations because of guests. To protect their health, zoo animals are not allowed to be exposed to constant human noise, which is difficult when the zoo is located in the heart of a city with cars driving by and continuous construction.
The Helsinki Zoo and Forum Virium Helsinki formed a partnership to analyze the noise experienced by animals to see if they could make improvements. They are in the process of analyzing noise levels with the help of robotic AI sensors. With this information, the zoo can change those enclosures most affected by city sounds, reducing stress levels in animals and creating a healthier environment for them.
Similarly, the Marwell Zoo wanted to learn more about animal sleeping patterns so it could keep them warm in the winter without driving up their heating bill.
The zoo partnered with IBM to invest in infrared sensors that turned on when the animals were under the heat lamps and turned off when they weren’t. This move alone saved the zoo money, but the team also connected the technology to local weather reports that only triggered the heat lamps at certain temperatures.
Finally, the technology takes photos of the animals located under the heat lamps, so caretakers can manually check that the lamps are turning off and on when they should. The result is warm, happy animals, and more room in the budget for the zoo to take care of them.
Robots Make Fish Care Easier
You don’t have to work in a zoo or join an anti-poaching group to see robots and animals interact. In fact, you might see some robots next time you visit the dentist in the waiting room fish tank.
The RoboSnail doesn’t look much like a snail, but it does similar work to keep an aquarium clean. This robot is a fully-automated glass cleaner that prevents algae from building up on the glass. With the RoboSnail, fish parents don’t have to worry about manually cleaning the tank, which can get grimy over time. This robot travels around the tank and keeps it clean without disturbing the fish residents.
For a more advanced option in your fish tank, consider MOAI, a robot tool that cleans your tank while taking photos and automatically sending them to your phone. Aquarium owners can schedule tank cleanings at specific times and can even livestream their tank through this robot. This is great for fish parents who want to watch their reefs from anywhere.
Tech Improves Pet Care
As you can see with the aquarium robots, the technology that the vast majority of animals interact with will be common household robots that make caring for a dog or cat easier.
Petcube is a robot cam that allows pet parents to interact with their dogs and cats when they’re away from home. People can watch their pets using a camera and record moments to share with friends. They can also talk to their pets through the cube and toss treats to them. This keeps humans closer to their pets even when they’re far away.
Other technology makes it easier to track your pet if they get away from you or wander away from home. Whistle is tool that you attach to your pet’s collar so you can track their GPS location and know precisely where they are. Owners can also track their pets motion over the past 24 hours to see where they went — ideal for worried cat parents who never know what their fur babies get up to!
Robots can also be used to create better toys and treats for animals. A chewing robot, for example, helps pet food providers create treats, Jennifer Parker Veterinary Practice writes. The robot mimics the chewing motions of a dog, helping companies develop chewables that clean pets’ teeth.
Developers Need to Keep Animals in Mind
While robot interaction might come naturally to us, it doesn’t with most animals. As a result, Dr. Oliver Bendel, a Swiss robotics professor, sees animal interactions as an important part of robot ethics. He recently published a paper on the importance of working to develop animal-friendly machines so we don’t harm natural wildlife in an effort to advance technology.
Wind turbines are an excellent example of this. Many people support wind energy because it is clean energy and therefore good for nature and the environment. However, smart turbines would take this a step further, and make their blades visible to birds when they approach. Another example of engineers taking nature into consideration is the development of self-driving cars that also brake for turtles and other animals in the road.
In an article for LabRoots, Nouran Amin elaborated on Bendel’s findings by explaining how “annotated decision trees” could work with a vacuum cleaner. By sensing colors and movement, a robot could identify a ladybug and stop moving until the insect is out of its way. However, this doesn’t mean that all insects are spared. People could set the robot vacuum to suck up household pests and invasive species that cause harm.
Anyone who has ever watched their dogs or cats run out of the room when they turn on a vacuum knows that animals and technology don’t always get along. But when we develop robots with animals in mind and to help our furry, feathered or scaley friends, we can create tools that protect nature and make these creatures feel comfortable.
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