Robot Snakes and Jumping Jerboas

Ask A Biologist Podcast, Vol 110
Podcast Interview with Talia Yuki Moore
Roboticist Talia Yuki Moore holding live snake that is a model for one of her robots.

Dr. Biology:

This is Ask A Biologist, a program about the living world. And I'm Dr. Biology. This episode is one in a series recorded at the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology conference, and I'm going to mention right now with cases of Omicron spiking, they're taking extra steps and using special protocols to help keep the attendees safe.

For us, we're back in our remote studio, which is close to the conference action and where we could catch up with some of these scientists who are part of the Spatial-temporal Dynamics in the Animal Communication group. And this guest scientist today, she builds robots. What kind of robots? Well, let's head over to the conference to find out.

[Background crowd noise.]

When you hear the word robot, what do you picture in your mind? For me, there are a few images that I see. There are bright-colored mechanical arms in an automated factory. 

[Mechanical arm movement sounds.]

Dr. Biology:

Or the fantastic robots that are part of the Transformer series. 

[Robot movement sounds.]

Dr. Biology:

I also think about the classic robot, Robbie, from the movie Forbidden Planet. 

[Audio from the movie - You are a robot aren't you? That is correct, sir.]

Dr. Biology:

While my imagination might seem limited, my guest has been thinking about robots and how they can be used to study animals and nature, and perhaps help scientists understand more about animals that are not - well suited for research in the laboratory. And for that reason, we're missing some of the important parts of nature's puzzle. Today, we're sitting down with Talia Yuki Moore, a faculty member, engineer, biologist, and roboticist currently at the University of Michigan. With her help, we should be able to expand our idea of what robots are and how they might be helpful for biologists studying animals both in the laboratory and out in the wild. Welcome to Ask A Biologist, Talia.

Talia:

Thanks for having me.

Dr. Biology:

All right. Well, we're at a conference here, and we're talking a lot about animal communication, animal movement. There's also discussions about biomimicry. There are scientists here that are learning from nature and building really cool things. You're a roboticist.

Talia:

Right.

Dr. Biology:

Let's dig into the world of robotics.

Talia:

Yeah, I really like robotics because I like them as a tool for evolutionary biology. So, I'm not out to make like the slickest, coolest robot I want to make the one that is going to fool the animals into thinking that it's some sort of real thing and then use that robot to find out what is going on in this interaction. Or I want to use it as a way to test hypotheses that I have about why animals move in a specific way.

Dr. Biology:

Tell me about some of your robots.

Talia:

OK, yeah. So some of my robots, I've brought two robots with me to this conference and one of them in my purse.

Dr. Biology:

Let's get it out now. Let's look at it.

Talia:

This is a snake robot. It's basically just a tube. It's a rubber tube.

Dr. Biology:

Yeah.

Talia:

I've painted it to look like a venomous coral snake.

Dr. Biology:

Uh-huh.

Talia:

And it's pneumatically actuated, which means that it just runs on air, not on electricity at all. So I also brought a bike pump to pump it up.

Dr. Biology:

OK.

Talia:

And the key to this robot is that I whined fibers around the robot in different ways, and that affects the way that it changes shape when it's blown up. And so coral snakes have these amazing like thrashing behaviors where they twitch back and forth in these complex shapes. So, I created these robots that can mimic the anti-predator behaviors of specific snake species.

Dr. Biology:

Oooh.

Talia:

And they're safely huntable by predators, so I can put them out into the world and then try and fool the predators into attacking them to find out, you know, how much is behavior affecting this anti-predator signal? Or how much is color affecting the behavioral signal? This anti-predator signal, and how much are they interacting?

Dr. Biology:

And you say they're safe?

Talia:

Yeah, my dog plays with these.

Dr. Biology:

Your dog plays.

Talia:

Yeah, they're just medical-grade latex tubing.

Dr. Biology:

OK, yeah. As I look at it, can we pump it up?

Talia:

Yeah, of course. So, it's like a portable bike pump, you can pump it up with a lot of different things. OK, so starts off kind of limp [bike pumping sound] and then as you pump it up, it usually happens faster in the field. But...

Dr. Biology:

Ah, it starts to coil.

Talia:

Yeah, so the tail coils up just like a coral snake's tail coils, and then the body turns into this sinusoidal shape, which is what they do. They kind of seize up and kind of go into this S-shape.

Dr. Biology:

Yeah, yeah.

Talia:

Wow. And so, this happens much more rapidly. Normally, it's just that what the bike pump, the pressure builds really slowly.

Dr. Biology:

All right. So, what have we learned from our robotic mechanical coral snake?

Talia:

Well, we haven't been able to deploy them too much in the field yet because of COVID. So, I had some collaborators taking them into the field in Panama and then COVID hit and so they couldn't run any experiments. But we are hoping to get these out in the field as soon as possible.

Dr. Biology:

This is cool. Your mechanical coral snake. The nice thing about the podcast now is we can add images to the little chapters. We'll make sure that someone who wants to see it will put a little image in there with that chapter so they can see it.

Dr. Biology:

Well, tell me about some of your other robots.

Talia:

Yeah, so my students have brought another robot. It's a modular leg robot. So, a lot of the robots that we see being used for research and that are really successful commercially are, you know, spot robot, mini cheetah, things like that. And all those robots I notice because I'm actually trained as a biologist that all their legs look identical. You just make one leg and then you replicate it, so you copy it three times and then you've got four legs and then that's your robot.

But animals aren't like that at all. There's no animal that has four identical legs. That's a vertebrate. So, having a backbone? And so, what I wanted to do was have a robot that can better reflect the changes in the leg shape between the front legs and the back legs.

Like, if you look at a dog, the front legs are really upright and then the back legs are much more bent. And so we've created a robot that has modular morphology so you can change each piece so that it can be any morphology you want it to be.

Dr. Biology:

Yeah, any body type?

Talia:

Exactly. Right? Yeah. And it's like totally 3D printable. You can make one leg for about $200. And so hopefully you will be able to make four-legged robot for under $1,000.

Dr. Biology:

Now, $1,000 to some people is going to seem like a lot.

Talia:

But the other ones are about $14,000.

Dr. Biology:

That's exactly the point.

Talia:

Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

Right? You're just beginning to explore the research side of this. Where do you see this going? And what other sensors? What other things are we going to be able to add the robots to help us understand more about nature and how animals interact out in the world?

Talia:

Yeah, I think that's a great question. So, one of the things that is great about using robots as kind of this like testbed or kind of this tool for biological research is that you can't ask an animal, Hey, can you just hop on one leg for a while? Or you've been jumping really high, can you just jump a little bit lower for a while or just turn left? And so, you can have a robot do all of those things. So, you can really precisely change the shape of a robot? Change the control of a robot. And then find out what the effect is on the locomotion and on the way that it moves just from those changes that you've made rather than. Is the animal hungry? Is the animal mad at you? Things like that. 

Dr. Biology:

From an ecological standpoint.

Talia:

Uh-huh

Dr. Biology:

The benefits of this, is it going to allow us to understand, for example, how to protect an endangered species? I'm just thinking we often try experiments thinking that we're going to be able to help a species that's endangered,

Talia:

Right?

Dr. Biology:

But we don't, to your point, understand exactly how they are interacting in the environment.

Talia:

Exactly. Yeah. So, one of the things that I'm really interested in is understanding how the physical environment, so just the shapes of the things that we walk around affects the way that we move through an environment. So, if there is a rock, how big does that rock need to be for me to not notice it at all, step over it very carefully or walk entirely around it? And so, by using a robot and changing its shape and then running it through these different courses, I can actually start to understand how much the physical body of the robot is making those kind of decisions subconsciously for the animal versus how much their brain is making those decisions. And so that's definitely something that can help us when we do things like conservation, but also ecological restoration. So, some animals really need wide open spaces. Some animals need really a lot of clutter. And oftentimes when they do ecological restoration, they might just like really plant it very, very densely. So, they'll make lots and lots, lots of plans, and it'll be very crowded. But it turns out that there are a lot of animals that need the open spaces in order to be able to survive even at all. They might get caught up in a lot of this underbrush. And so, when we think about how we're changing our environment, I think it's really important to understand how the animals are affected by those changes.

Dr. Biology:

You describe yourself as a biologist.

Talia:

Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

You also describe yourself as a robotic scientist.

Talia:

Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

Which came first?

Talia:

The biology came first, so I started off in biology, in college, but it didn't really make sense to me until I took biomechanics, which is kind of the application of physics and mechanical engineering to biology. And so, since then, I started doing research in biomechanics in the lab of Professor Bob Full at Berkeley, and from the beginning, we were working on animals and animal-inspired robots side by side. And so for the past. Oh, uh, 13 years. Oh boy, it's a long time. For the past 13 years, [laughs] I've been working on animals and robots together.

Dr. Biology:

And your passion for robots? Has it led you to other things that you hadn't really anticipated 

Talia:

I think that the robots themselves were that for me, so I got started in robotics. I kind of went through a period where I was focusing much more on the evolution of animals and the ecology of animals and how biomechanics can help us understand that. And then I realized that, hey, I really should be using robots for this. And I think that I had been thinking of them as two separate fields when really, they work better in my research when I bring them together.

Dr. Biology:

The coral snake robot not yet proven, we haven't tested it in the field.

Talia:

Right.

Dr. Biology:

What robots have been tested doing, this sort of thing where they're actually working on questions around evolution?

Talia:

Yeah, I think that they're much more deployed for behavioral ecology rather than evolution right now. So behavioral ecology is kind of like how animals interact with each other in the natural world, and a lot of that can be mating or predator/prey encounters. And two people who I'm really inspired by in my research are Gail Petrocelli and then David Clark. So, Gail Petrocelli has these sage grouse birds. And the male birds do this amazing kind of courtship ritual. And so, she created a female bird robot that has a camera in it. And it elicits or, you know, excites these male birds to do their courtship rituals. And so, she studies kind of those interactions that way. And then David Clarke, he makes these anoles lizard robots. And they do things like pushups. They have this like throat fan called like a dewlap. And then he demonstrated that the other animals in the environment are responding to those robots. So, I'm really inspired by both of their research.

Dr. Biology:

So, what are some of the tools of the trade for a robotics biologist? Is this something that you could actually do at home?

Talia:

Yeah, absolutely. You can make these snake robots at home, they cost about three bucks to make. I actually have my students make them in a bio-inspired design class that I teach. But I think that, yeah, but the world of robotics is so incredibly varied that it depends on what type of robotics you want to do. So, a lot of people use motors like electrical motors, and if you do that, it's really, really useful to start learning about mechanical engineering and learning about kind of like electricity as well. Electrical engineering but soft robotics often relies on things like pneumatics, which is pressurized air or hydraulics, which is pressurized fluid. And so understanding fluids is really important for that. But also, they rely on kind of having these compliant or, you know, stretchy deformable materials. And so, understanding a little bit about materials testing, and material properties is also really important. So it's actually the world is your oyster. Whatever your interests are, you can get into robotics. It doesn't have to all be one idea of what is a robot. You can make a robot out of anything.

Dr. Biology:

Right at the beginning when I talk about Transformers. That's the stereotypical robot we're thinking about. And obviously, we immediately change that thought with your snake.

Talia:

Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

Along with the snake, since you have that activity, would you share that so we can have it on? Ask A Biologist basically how to build your pneumatic snake?

Talia:

Yeah, definitely.

Dr. Biology:

OK, great. That's a deal.

Talia:

Mm-hmm.

Dr. Biology:

So, I've got you roped in there, so we'll do that. We'll also have images on the show as well. But I want to build one.

Talia:

Yeah!

Dr. Biology:

I suppose that's why I was asking. Yeah, that looks kind of cool.

Talia:

Yeah, it's pretty easy to do. It can get a little tricky. You need to be a little bit careful about how you do it. But overall, we use a machine to do it for when we make hundreds of these snakes at a time. But you can do it at home pretty easily.

Dr. Biology:

I was actually curious to see how, for example, we have a cat.

Talia:

Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

I was just curious what the cat would do.

Talia:

Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

When it saw this robot snake.

Talia:

Yeah, I don't have a cat, but I have a dog at home, and he uses these as toys. He loves to pick them up and play with them.

Dr. Biology:

So, is that a good thing or a bad thing now? Because obviously, we don't want him out in the wild, picking up a coral snake.

Talia:

Right, I don't give him the ones that look like coral snakes.

Dr. Biology:

OK. All right. Well, I would just like, OK...

Talia:

I don't want to train my dog to hunt coral snakes. That would be pretty bad.

Dr. Biology:

Right? In your quest? What is the most unusual or unexpected thing that you've discovered in the world of robotics?

Talia:

Hmm. OK. This is going to be a little bit nuanced, so I'll try and explain it as well as I can. There's an idea that got really popular because it's a very, very powerful in biomechanics, and it's the idea that. Animals are cursorial, which means that they can run for a really long time at high speeds with low energetic costs. So, it doesn't cost as much oxygen and fuel for your muscles to keep running for a long time. And so, this has been demonstrated by people working in labs for 70 years with animals on treadmills. So, they create a treadmill and then they bring animals into the lab and then they run them on these treadmills and they say, Oh when we increase the speed of the treadmill, we find that the animals change gates. So, their footfall pattern changes, so they go from like walking to trotting to galloping. And whenever they change their gait, that gait has an energetic minimum, so it's best at a different speed. And so, they change their gates at different speeds, and they came up with this amazing kind of scaling relationship and a way to predict this for animals like really, really small and really, really big and everything in between. And it's called the Froude number, and it's really, really powerful. But what they didn't realize is that because they created the treadmill and they brought all these animals into the lab, they were selecting just for the animals that would fit this mold. So, we know a lot about her surreal animals that run on treadmills. Well, we know almost nothing about the locomotion of animals that are non-cursorial animals that don't run on treadmills.

Dr. Biology:

OK, so for example.

Talia:

For example, I studied jerboas. Jerboas are bipedal hopping rodents, which are small rodents, and they jump around in the desert. They're about the size of your fist, and they can jump over three feet straight up in the air and six feet forward.

Talia:

And they have this zigzag locomotion. And if you try and put them in a track like a straight, narrow track, they hate it and they barely move at all. You can get some locomotion out of them, but it's nothing. But then you put them in a big open space, and it's incredible. They're bouncing all over the place. They're actually called ricochetal rodents because they ricochet off of everything. And so if you bring them into the lab, you're not going to get the most incredible understanding of this animal. And if you put them out in the wild, you got this incredible behavior that is evolutionarily relevant because it turns out that that's what's useful for predator evasion. And so, if we remember that, you know, sometimes the methods that we use to study animals can constrain us and limit us and just kind of expand our possibilities by going outside of the lab. That's really. Important.

Dr. Biology:

How are robotics then allowing you to do the study out in the field for them?

Talia:

So this work is inspiring actually the way that I'm controlling robots for movement out in the fields. I'm not using robotics yet to understand these jerboas. I have a project that is super-secret that I'm not going to talk about. But in this case, the jerboas are actually inspiring the robots.

Dr. Biology:

Got it. OK, so basically, how do we start measuring these things that are not possible to measure in the lab...

Talia:

Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

...out in the field? You're going to have to come back for the super-secret answer there or send it along because everybody's going to want to know what's the top-secret project that we don't get to hear about?

Talia:

Well, hopefully, it'll be successful, and we'll be able to share it with everyone pretty soon.

Dr. Biology:

Talia on my show, no one gets to leave without answering three questions.

Talia:

OK.

Dr. Biology:

The first question is. Was there a point in your life that you knew that you were going to be a scientist?

Talia:

It was when I first took my first biomechanics course, yeah, I had gotten through basically two years of college, not knowing at all what I wanted to do with my life. I was getting pretty bad grades and I was directionless. And so, when I took my first biomechanics course, it was like everything clicked together and I said, This is what I'm going to do with the rest of my life.

Dr. Biology:

Wow. Did you send a thank you note to that teacher?

Talia:

Oh, always, we keep in touch. He emailed me yesterday. I emailed him this morning. Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

Perfect, perfect. You know, there are so many of those teachers out there that have done that for students. Any student that hasn't gotten contact with the teacher has made that kind of a difference in their life. You know, I have to encourage you to do that. I did it with an English teacher for me.

Talia:

That's incredible.

Dr. Biology:

An English teacher that got me going with the written word. I actually sent her a copy of my first publication.

Talia:

That's great. Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

So yes, please do. All right. The second question and this is where I'm a bit evil. I'm going to take it all the way. It took you until the second year of college to know what you're going to do and you're passionate about what you're doing and you're loving it. I'm going to take all your science away, and often you've also gotten hooked on teaching. So, I'm going to take that away, and I'm going to ask you, what would you do or who would you be if you could be anything?

Talia:

Yeah, I love this question. If I was not a scientist and not a teacher, I think I would want to go into art restoration. Yeah. It's a weird answer, but I just love the idea of being really close to this art that someone else has made and really honoring it and preserving it and understanding how to do that the right way and kind of revealing things that - people are scanning Leonardo da Vinci's work and finding paintings underneath paintings like how incredible is that? And all of these different types of art like textiles need to be preserved in a very specific way. I would love to get into that. I mean, that's one of my most intriguing things. I went to a museum once and there was an art restoration exhibit, and I was like, this is this is so cool.

Dr. Biology:

I have a YouTube channel for you.

Talia:

OK.

Dr. Biology:

It's called Baumgartner Restoration.

Talia:

OK.

Dr. Biology:

You're going to be hooked.

Talia:

That sounds great.

Dr. Biology:

What's interesting about it is the fact that I don't think you're alone. It's not as crazy as you might think or as unusual as you might think, because that YouTube channel has, I don't know, millions of views.

Talia:

Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

So, I agree there's something about that, and you need to know the history. There's chemistry. There's the art to it. There is carpentry. I mean, it goes on and on and on.

Talia:

Yeah. And I love how you're working on small patches at a time, but it adds up and you can really just experience. And like tangibly see the work that you've done. Yeah, I love that. So yeah, my mom has a cousin who's a textiles art restorer, and I think it's an incredible profession.

Dr. Biology:

Fabulous. All right. The last question, what advice would you have for that future scientist or could be that student is out there struggling to find their way?

Talia:

Yeah, my advice is be curious and follow your curiosity. Don't feel guilty for being interested in something that may not be your major. I actually got all A's in my elective classes in college, and it turns out that almost every single one of those elective classes has come in handy for my research. So, I took like a film noir class, and it came in really handy for when I'm doing high-speed video kinematics, that type of stuff. And the language classes that I took have helped me do fieldwork in many other countries. And so, by kind of just exploring and figuring out what you like, it can help you figure out what you're going to do with those interests.

Dr. Biology:

Wonderful. Talia, I want to thank you for being on Ask A Biologist.

Talia:

Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

Dr. Biology:

You have been listening to Ask A Biologist to my guests, have been roboticist and biologist Talia Yuki Moore. She's currently a faculty member at the University of Michigan. If you want to learn more about robot animals, you are in luck. We catch up with David Clark in a future podcast in this series. We will get the story behind his lizard robots and also his work with cute colorful jumping spiders The Ask A Biologist podcast is usually produced on the campus of Arizona State University and is recorded in the Grassroots Studio housed in the School of Life Sciences, which is an academic unit of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. But for this show, we're at the annual research conference for the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology, also called SICB. And remember, even though our program is not broadcast live, you can still send us your questions about biology using our companion website.

The address is askabiologist.asu.edu or you can just Google the words Ask A Biologist. As always, I'm Dr. Biology, and I hope you're staying safe and healthy.

View Citation

You may need to edit author's name to meet the style formats, which are in most cases "Last name, First name."

Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Robot Snakes and Jumping Jerboas
  • Episode number: 110
  • Author(s): Dr. Biology
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: January 23, 2022
  • Date accessed: September 29, 2022
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/listen-watch/robot-snakes-and-jumping-jerboas

APA Style

Dr. Biology. (2022, January 23). Robot Snakes and Jumping Jerboas (110) [Audio podcast Episode.] In Ask A Biologist Podcast. Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/listen-watch/robot-snakes-and-jumping-jerboas

American Psychological Association. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/

Chicago Manual of Style

Dr. Biology. "Robot Snakes and Jumping Jerboas." Produced by Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist. Ask A Biologist Podcast. January 23, 2022. Podcast, MP3 audio. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/listen-watch/robot-snakes-and-jumping-jerboas.

MLA Style

"Robot Snakes and Jumping Jerboas." Ask A Biologist Podcast from Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist, 23 January, 2022, askabiologist.asu.edu/listen-watch/robot-snakes-and-jumping-jerboas.

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/
Holly jumping jerboas! These hopping animals are inspiring some new research for biologist Talia Moore. Image of Egyptian Jerboa by Haydee Gutierrez via eLife (CC BY 4.0)

Be Part of
Ask A Biologist

By volunteering, or simply sending us feedback on the site. Scientists, teachers, writers, illustrators, and translators are all important to the program. If you are interested in helping with the website we have a Volunteers page to get the process started.

Donate icon  Contribute

 

Share to Google Classroom