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Wildlife That Isn't Wild And Isn't Alive

Bit by bit, bot by bot, robots are slipping into the real world. Yes, they are born in science labs, but more and more, they're joining us outdoors, up in the sky as drones or spybots (looking like swifts swooping across a meadow), or swimming in the ocean (looking like sharks). These newborns are built to cope with what's out there. They're tough. They have to be because outdoors isn't like an MIT lab; it's got gullies, streams, weather and Things That Get In Your Way, like, for example, trees.

One of the toughest outdoor robots is the Defense Department's pack mule, a four-legged cargo-carrying thingy named (undeliciously) "LS3" for "legged squad support system" — that's an L followed by three S words. In the video below, a human gives it a verbal command, "follow tight," and you can watch it stir into obedience, rising on its four legs, following its master into the woods, where it's very "off-road," making its way around hundreds of randomly placed trees, which ain't easy ...

LS3 Obstacles
/ YouTube

Sometimes, the world gets the better of "L" (my nickname for it), like when it tries to cross a gully and totally capsizes, doing a full roll, and then, apparently by itself, recovers and trots on. He's my guy. This video ends with him (or it) galloping, then trotting through a maze of containers meant to simulate a souk or a back alley. His real parents are the robotics team at Boston Dynamics.

If "L" is the hottest thing in tough outdoor robots, Salamandra is the wettest,driest and most adaptable.It is, say its inventors at the Biorobotics Laboratory in Lausanne, Switzerland, "one of the few robots, if not the only one, that can swim, crawl and walk."

Cut It, Slice It, Dice It, It 'Lives'

It comes in a variety of sizes and because each of its modules has its own microcontroller, battery and motor, you can step on it, slice it, split it and its various body parts would still walk.

Salamander goose.
/ Biorobotics Laboratory
Biorobotics Laboratory

In this video, we find it first in the lab swimming in water, then switching to "walking," turning its fins into legs. Next the scene switches, and we're back outdoors, this time heading through a leafy park to the shore of Lake Geneva, where the "salamander" (in this case guided by a remote operator, I think) works its way through the rack line of leaf and branches to the water's edge. A large swan is standing there, and when the salamander pulls near, it leans in a bit, as if wondering, "Hmmm. Is this something I need to worry about?" But, hey, whatever it is, it doesn't bother this swan. And off they go, both of them, into the lake.

All of which makes me wonder, if the world is soon going to be full of gizmos that look alive, zipping through the air, swimming, walking or maybe doing all three, will we know which is biotic and which is just tech? Will we care? The swan doesn't. But the swan doesn't know about privacy, spies, weapons disguised as animals, cargo, lawn care, bomb defusing, garbage collection or search-and-rescue missions after an earthquake. It's a swan after all.

I, for better or worse, am a human. Who worries, just a little.

For a closer look (with lots of videos) at Salamander robotica II, the newest edition of the "salamander" described above, you can find the science paper describing it right here.Crespi, A.; Karakasiliotis, K.; Guignard, A.; Ijspeert, A. J., "Salamandra Robotica II: An Amphibious Robot to Study Salamander-Like Swimming and Walking Gaits," IEEE Transactions on Robotics, vol. 29, no.2, pp.308-320, doi: 10.1109/TRO.2012.2234311

Correction: An earlier version of this post mislabeled the swans in the video as geese.

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Robert Krulwich works on radio, podcasts, video, the blogosphere. He has been called "the most inventive network reporter in television" by TV Guide.

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