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3D-printed salamander robot moves just like the real thing

Advanced robots like AlphaDog and SpotMini can move pretty well, but their gait tends to have a telltale robotic look. This skeletal salamander robot moves eerily like the real thing.

How do you make a robot move just like the animal you’re copying? By studying its inner workings as closely as possible. The team from the Ecole Polytecnique Federale in Lausanne, Switzerland used X-ray video footage of a salamander to examine how its bones moved in three dimensions. They tracked movement along 64 different points, Kinect-style.

By studying those movements — and 3D printing components that closely mimic a real salamander’s skeletal structure — they were able to reproduce its trademark jerky locomotion with amazing accuracy. Salamanders are amphibians, of course, so claiming that this robot moves like the real thing without making it swim just wouldn’t do. The EPFL team covered all the bases, though, slipping a sort of wetsuit over their ‘bot before turning it loose in a pool of water.

Engineer Kostas Karakasilliotis says that “animal locomotion is an inherently complex process,” but notes that today’s super-powerful computers and advancements like cineradiography and 3D printing are making it easier to give robotic creations more lifelike movements.

The EPFL biorobotics lab has actually been painstakingly refining the design of their salamander for several years now. The build team believes that creations like it will help us gain a better understanding of how the spinal cord impacts movement not just in salamanders but in vertebrates of all shapes and sizes.

But hey, even if it doesn’t, maybe you’ll be able to own your very own pet salamander that looks and moves just like a real one… and you won’t need a fancy terrarium to keep it healthy and happy.

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