Humanoid robots and gadget-y autonomous machines can perform lots of tasks pretty admirably. But when you have a specific need, you need a specifically-equipped robot — which can mean making modifications to existing robot archetypes, or building a specialized ‘bot designed for a sole purpose. Welcome to the age of zoobotics, in which robots are inspired not by people, or restrained by technology like in the early days of robotics. Instead, zoobotics is animal-inspired.

We’ve seen plenty of examples of biomimicry in the robot world, from drones that fly like hummingbirds (pictured above) to caterpillar bots that flip around like a worm in distress. They’re evidence that roboticists are increasingly turning to natural evolution, the master designer of task-specific architecture for 4 billion years, and letting form follow function.

The Economist nicknames this new generation of animal-like robots “Zoomorpha,” as opposed to “Widgetophora” (wheeled or clawed machines like R2-D2) and “Anthropoidea,” the humanoids.

This new phylum would include creations like snakebots; octopus tentacle arms; robofish; gecko bots; robotic seagulls and much more.

The Economist story features some undersea-inspired robots, including a tentacle arm, a clam-bot and even a lamprey with cameras for eyes, as well as robotic shrew whiskers and the gecko-inspired StickyBot.

The robots are designed for specific uses, like using the octopus arm to shut off underwater valves. In many cases, they’re designed to help scientists study the very animals on which they’re modeled — like the clam bot, which is being used to study how shell shape affects an animal’s survival chances. Check out the Economist’s piece for a full overview.

In the meantime, we’ll start thinking about genus classifications for these bio-inspired robots. Like Darpawishinae for the defense bots. Any other suggestions?

The Economist