Squirrel Parkour Is Inspiring the Design of Future Robots

It’s difficult to overstate how eager scientists and engineers are to build animal-like robots. Various professionals have been working on everything from fly bots to robo-cheetahs, and the invasion of Boston Dynamics’ dog droids is, of course, already upon us. Now, as Smithsonian Magazine reports, researchers are looking to add robot squirrels to the list. But first, they need to figure out how the dextrous rodents are so good at parkour.

In a new study published in the journal Science, a team of biologists and biomechanics researchers from UC Berkeley outlines how it studied squirrels’ extraordinary agility. The team looked at “free-ranging” campus squirrels, analyzing how they launched and landed as they rocketed themselves through the air. Aiming to study the squirrels’ use of their anatomy in the hopes of providing the basis for more agile bots.

As a UC Berkeley press release notes, the researchers conducted their experiment in a eucalyptus grove on the university’s campus. The researchers put the squirrels in “sketchy situations” where they had to decide whether or not to leap for peanuts. Jumping from “launching pads” with varying levels of bendiness.

In the video above, the team shows some of the squirrel movements they were able to decipher. The video shows, for example, how squirrels adjust their takeoff techniques depending on the flimsiness of their launch pad; choosing to jump further and run less when branches droop too much.

A squirrel jumping from one wood plank to another in front of a white sheet.

UC Berkeley

When the squirrels “encounter a branch with novel mechanical properties, they learn to adjust their launching mechanics in just a few jumps,” co-author Nathaniel Hunt said in the press release. “This behavioral flexibility that adapts to the mechanics and geometry of leaping and landing structures is important to accurately leaping across a gap to land on a small target,” he added.

A squirrel performing parkour off a wall between a bendy piece of wood and a cup of nuts.

UC Berkeley

The most fascinating aspect of the squirrels’ leaping tactics, however, was their use of parkour. When the rodents couldn’t calculate a reasonable leaping technique, they used a wall the researchers provided as a go-between. But while it’s cool to see these furry beasts move like one of those incredible street athletes who apparently has no use for bones, we can’t help but wonder what it’ll be like when robots can move like that. Especially robots that look like this.

Feature image: UC Berkeley

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