Good Doggy

Meet Our Animal Robot Overlords

Science imitates nature as researchers dream up robotic dogs, cheetahs, sharks and even cockroaches.

Charles Krupa/AP

Not sure if you noticed, but 2014 has been a banner year for animal robots. Seriously. There’s some James Bond super-villain levels of cross-pollination between the wild kingdom and the sterile labs of robotics geniuses, a regular NatGeo-meets-Inspector-Gadget mash up. Tired of trying to conquer Mother Nature, some übergeeks have acknowledged that she may actually have known what she was doing with that whole evolution thing (sorry, fundamentalists) and took to bending our own technology to improve what eons of adaptation have wrought.

Admittedly, science has been taking cues from biological designs for decades, but it really came to a head, err, headline, this year.

Mostly for military use, of course.

The leader of the pack is Boston Dynamics, who had a blip in the news cycle a year ago when search giant Google determined that in order to continue as a company with a stated motto of “don’t be evil” they needed to control a cybernetic zoo whose primary customer is DARPA, the Pentagon’s Defense Advance Research Projects Agency. From Big Dog, the four-legged canine bot who can pad his way across any terrain, withstand blows, and even hurl cinderblocks if so inclined, to Wild Cat, modeled for a cheetah and boasting a Usain Bolt topping max speed of over 28 MPH, this former MIT-based company is making sure if global warming brings the flood soon, their beasties won’t need no stinking ark.

It’s not just on land that Terminator-esque critters are gaining traction and making Elon Musk stomp his soapbox about an Artificial Intelligence takeover. Just last month the Navy announced it had crafted an underwater drone that looks like a shark and can fin its way autonomously throughout the seas. Dubbed Ghostswimmer, their hope is that it replaces the trained dolphins and sea lions currently being employed to locate underwater mines. Robo-Jaws will be joining Robojelly in the government’s aquatic arsenal, their “bio-inspired” hydrogen-fueled jellyfish surveillance drone.

We know that the skies are open season for all manner of drone traffic, from missile launchers to beer droppers. But did you know that a fellow at Harvard University has a swarm of automated bees capable of doing everything from surveillance to crop pollination? Cool, yes, though not quite as cool as the cyborg cockroaches you can control from your smartphone.

Okay, those are almost more creepy than cool. Luckily, just like their occasionally vicious and occasionally cuddly flesh and blood counterparts, robot animals aren’t all scary or invasive.

Some scientists have mocked up a mechanical penguin to collect data on the flightless, tuxedoed birds without alarming them, and it worked so well that fluffy chicks decided to incorporate it into a group snuggle. And over at Vassar another imaginative posse of robotic-capable biologists are using predator and prey robots modeled after prehistoric fish to study the evolution of vertebrates.

Does all this mean that a robo-Jurassic Park is coming soon to a neighborhood near you? No. Well, not unless you live in Australia. But it does lend some credence to the guy down the block with the tinfoil hat and duct tape over his windows, who keeps muttering about “them” controlling ants. Which, it’s worth noting, is, in fact, a thing.

Whether they spell the apocalypse or are just another step towards the singularity, some of the best and brightest among us are hard at work sculpting the natural world in silicone and steel. So what should you do? Get in on the action, of course. If you can’t beat ’em…