The salamander-inspired Pleurobot has already made waves for its stunningly accurate approximation of real-life locomotion. But its creators at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have higher hopes than that. They're not just trying to make a really good fake salamander -- they're trying to figure out how all spines, including our own, came to evolve.
"It's a key animal from an evolutionary point of view," engineer Auke Ijspeert told Reuters. "It's older than crocodiles and dinosaurs; it's an amphibian. So if you look at the modern salamander, its morphology and body shape is very close to the fossils of the first terrestrial vertebrates. So by studying the modern salamander, we have a time window to the ancestors of all terrestrial vertebrates, including humans."
Pleurobot was inspired by extensive 3-D X-rays of salamanders in motion, and the robot's joints and muscles are designed to act just like the real thing. Ijspeert's team can test out different neural patterns to see how they change the way the robot walks. They hope this will help neuroscientists learn more about how the spinal cord receives signals from the brain -- which could help in the development of therapies for paraplegics.
Okay, so these engineers hope their lizard will unlock evolutionary secrets and help paraplegics to walk again. But wait, there's more: Their robot could also have some pretty great search and rescue applications. Low to the ground and with a wide range of motion because of its many joints, Pleurobot would be a good choice for scoping out a collapsed building for survivors. The engineering team is working on making a new version of Pleurobot that's both slightly smaller and amphibious, which would make it even better suited for helping out in natural disasters.