A Zoo's Worth of Robotic Animals

A German firm has designed birds, penguins and even humans

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The latest TED talk feels a few years ahead of its time. Featuring Markus Fischer, the head of corporate design for German tech company Festo, the video shows what appears to be a sort of stiff seagull flying around the conference hall, swooping down on audience members and eliciting endless ooo's and ahh's. It's kind of like those bald eagle shows at theme parks except for one glaring difference. Festo's bird is actually a lightweight robot.

Fischer's invention is called the SmartBird, and it's modelled after the herring gull. SmartBird is the centerpiece of a broader project to build technology that mimics nature. Futuristically named the Bionic Learning Network, the project is a collaboration between Festo and universities that's so far built six different robotic animals. For the most part, Fischer says, the arduous process of mimicking nature in robotics helps him and other designers think up ways to build lighter weight, more elegant machines. Once built, the animals themselves are sort of just for show.

"There are no explicit plans for the SmartBird," said Fischer in an interview. "We don’t want to produce a swarm of SmartBirds, if that’s what you think. But we’re trying to copy the knowledge on topics like energy efficiency and lightweight construction to other products from Festo and those of our customers."

Given its instant accessibility to crowds, Fischer's Dr. Doolittle approach to robotics has been featured in exhibitions at New York's MoMA and elsewhere across the world.

The Bionic Learning Network is best described by videos of its creations. Like this one of a robotic elephant trunk:

There's also a robotic fish called the "Airacuda." It can swim around a tank on its own and even blows bubbles:

The "Festo Aqua Penguin" offers similar functionality, but it looks like a penguin. Remarkably like a penguin, in fact--though the creepy glowing blue eyes give away its robotic secret.

Honestly, the creepiest of all Festo's creations is the humanoid, which resembles a real life Terminator:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.