[By Sudarshana Banerjee]

Why can’t robots balance well? Forget your Steven Pinker (the ghost is so needed in the machine of your choice, no?) University of California, Berkeley, biologists and engineers have figured out just what might make robots stabler. The fix is simple. Pin a tail. On your robot.

Researchers at Berkeley University led by team leader Robert J. Full, professor, Integrative Biology studied how lizards manage to leap successfully even when they slip and stumble. They found that lizards swing their tails upward to prevent them from pitching head-over-heels into a rock. The team added a tail to a robotic car named Tailbot, and discovered robots and lizards must actively adjust the angle of their tails just right to remain upright.

Robert J. Full (Team leader, Professor, Integrative Biology, UC Berkeley):  Inspiration from lizard tails will likely lead to far more agile search-and-rescue robots, as well as ones having greater capability to more rapidly detect chemical, biological or nuclear hazards.

The research came about as part of the interplay fostered at UC Berkeley between biologists and engineers in the Center for Interdisciplinary Bio-inspiration in Education and Research (CiBER) lab, where Mr. Full and six of his students used high-speed videography and motion capture to record how a red-headed African Agama lizard moved about.

When body position was sensed and fed back to the tail motor, Tailbot was able to stabilize its body in midair. The actively controlled tail effectively redirected the angular momentum of the body into the tail’s swing, as happens with leaping lizards, Mr. Full said.

The work was funded by the National Science Foundation, including the NSF’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, and the Micro Autonomous Systems Technologies (MAST) consortium, a group of researchers funded in part by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory that is focused on creating autonomous sensing robots.