🎵 Spider-bot, spider-bot, moves in ways most spiders cannot 🎵

Nothing in particular about Festo, a Germany-based international corporation specializing in industrial robotics, suggests that the company has a mandate to design spider robots. Yet the company is perhaps best known for its array of bio-inspired machines, everything from ants to flapping butterflies to, now, tumbling robot spiders. The latest, straightforwardly dubbed “BionicWheelBot,” is inspired by the flic-flac spider, which can transform from normal legged movement to a sort of sideways handstand that then launches into a wheel motion.

That’s hard to capture in words, so here’s what it looks like in a gif:

A spider-inspired robot rolls into a wheel.
A spider-inspired robot rolls into a wheel.

Why the spider bot? What purpose can there be in such a machine? Festo’s choice of a flic-flac spider is instructive, as the flic-flac can move efficiently through the desert sands of its native Morocco. Here’s how Festo puts it:

[The flic-flac spider] is, therefore, ideally adapted to its surroundings: on even ground, it is twice as fast in so-called rolling mode than when walking. However, where it is uneven, it is faster walking normally. As such, in the desert, where both types of terrain can be found, it is able to move safely and efficiently.
Since its discovery, Professor [Ingo] Rechenberg has been working on transferring its movement patterns to the technical field. The studies into the spider’s behaviour led to the design of various robots that can propel themselves on difficult terrain. For the BionicWheelBot, the scientist from Berlin has now developed the kinematics and drive concept together with our bionics team.

Transforming from a wheel to a legged-mode of transportation is the stuff of Saturday morning cartoons, and it it is the evolution of a real-life spider. As Festo shows, it can also be the stuff of future robots.

What could militaries do with machines like this? My mind immediately went to the destroyer droids featured in the Star Wars prequel trilogy (and the Clone Wars TV show). In fiction, the robots traveled fast over level terrain as wheels, and then stabilized into legged gun platforms once in combat. Outside of fiction, the dual-modes of a rolling robot suggest patrols or inspections, a machine that can speed along intact roads to where it needs to go and then, once there, walk over any rubble or rough terrain to scout the area. Wheeled vehicles often get stuck on anything other than a smooth surface, and tracked machines can be slow, so rolling into action and then climbing over, say, the new debris from an explosion would mean the robot can be in place fast and surmount obstacles that would delay or hinder other robots.

Festo is not in the business of designing biomimetic robots for military use, so it’s likely up to someone else to figure out if a rolling walking spider scout bot is the kind of tool troops might want to take into the field. If they decide against the wheeling spiders, there are still plenty of other robotic companions available.

Watch the BionicWheelBot below: