Nature-inspired engineering isn’t new—but engineers are still finding new ways to take cues from biology. We got the beastly lowdown at day 3 of the RoboUniverse conference in New York this morning.

Vijay Kumar, who’s recently been named Dean of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered a keynote about the future of flying ‘bots. He and his colleagues look to the animal kingdom for design ideas. Here’s what they’re coming up with:

Eagle-like grasping

The majestic symbol of American freedom sure knows how to put an airborne death grip on its prey, and researchers at Penn want flying robots to do the same thing with grabbable objects. So the team outfitted a flying robot with some claws and snatched up a hapless Philly cheesesteak in the lab at three meters per second. This can help rescue drones pluck important items from rubble or from hazardous conditions. The team is also working with robots that can carry small loads, like eagles can: they’ve got robots with a tiny parcel dangling from a connected string, and that can fly through hula hoops with the cargo intact.

Bee-like swarming

“Size does matter—smaller is better,” Kumar says. One thing that many roboticists are interested in nowadays is the notion of the “artificial swarm,” in which many drones are dispatched at once. So Penn turned to bees: They’re puny, travel en masse, and don’t care if they bump into each other. (“One thing engineers obsess about is collision avoidance—but bees don’t care because they’re small and can recover,” Kumar says.) They developed “Pico,” a four-inch long, .04-pound minibot that zooms at 20 feet per second and is encased in something of a protective cage that allows for care-free collisions.

Ant-like coordinating

Ants are great at self-organizing. And researchers want robots that can divvy themselves up into cooperative teams. So the “leader-follower” networks that Penn is working with involve small swarms of tiny flying robots (say, four or five in a group) that are programmed to fly in formation. Kumar says the “robots are agnostic to the identity of their neighbors—they don’t even know the total number in the team.” So they adapt when new members are added, increasing the circle and continuing the formation. Kumar likens it to strangers in a room being asked to team up to move a table.

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These features, especially the artificial swarming, could help folks dispatch big groups of first responder robots in a disaster. Within seconds, big teams of drones with downward facing cameras can flock to the scene to be humans’ eyes and ears before the humans even arrive.

Check out the video below to see one type of these bio-inspired ‘bots in action:

Image credit: Getty. Video credit: Vijay Kumar, YouTube

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