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Crayfish robots on Mars

Australian scientists are using a humble indigenous freshwater crayfish, known as the Yabby, as their inspiration to help build miniature robots for NASA's exploration of Mars.

Platoons of robo-yabbies could soon explore the red planet searching for water or conducting chemical analysis of the atmosphere and the planet's crust - tasks that are currently impractical for humans.

University of Melbourne zoologist, Professor David Macmillan and associates in his Melbourne laboratory and collaborating laboratories overseas are using the Yabby (Cherax destructor) to help advance research in the global movement called biomimetics. The movement is a rapidly expanding area of research that harvests nature's best design ideas for use in robotics.

"Invertebrates such as insects and crustaceans achieve similar movement and sensory outcomes to humans. For example, finding food and selection of appropriate mates and nesting sites. Where humans use millions of neurons to achieve such outcomes, invertebrates do it with thousands. Where humans use hundreds, invertebrates may use as few as six," he says.

"It is this parsimony, that ability to control complex behaviours with an amazingly small amount of brain power that attracts scientists from disciplines including robotics engineering, computer programming, biology, mathematics and neurology."

Advances in computational network modeling, and electronics have permitted development of a bizarre new class of truly biomimetic beasts. But it isn't as easy as merely taking apart an animal or plant and copying what you see.

"Evolution doesn't always come up with the best solution from an engineer's perspective," says Professor Macmillan.

Despite these evolutionary pitfalls, biomimetics has already produced swimming robots that achieve propulsion by whole body undulations or tail flapping and robots that walk using multiple jointed legs to mediate locomotion. Inroads are even
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Contact: Jason Major
jmajor@unimelb.edu.au
61-3-8344-0181
University of Melbourne
9-Jan-2002


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