Amazingly life-like robots act as spies in the wild for Planet Earth II

robotic crocodile
Video screen capture EPFL

The first Planet Earth series was groundbreaking with its awe-inspiring footage of our planet, showing us animals and sights that most of us will never get to see in real life. That's partly because in order to capture those incredible moments, the film team had to fully embed themselves in their often harsh surroundings, sometimes waiting for days to get a single shot.

For the second installment of the BBC documentary series, the creators wanted to capture even more close up moments of animals in the wild, ones that a human couldn't get on their own no matter how well disguised. That's where robots come in.

The producers got in touch with the Biorobotics Lab at Switzerland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), which has worked for years on nature-inspired robots.

The first Planet Earth series was widely praised for its awe-inspiring footage of our planet, showing us animals and sights that most of us will never get to see real life. That's partly because in order to capture those incredible moments, the film team had to fully embed themselves in their often harsh surroundings, sometimes waiting for days to get a single shot.

For the second installment of the BBC documentary series, the creators wanted to capture even more close up moments of animals in the wild, ones that a human couldn't get on their own. That's where robots come in.

The producers got in touch with the Biorobotics Lab at Switzerland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), which has worked for years on building nature-inspired robots in order to study the organism itself.

“We use a process called bio-informed robotics,” said scientist Kamilo Melo of EPFL’s Biorobotics Laboratory. “We study biology, gather information and data to inform robotic design, and then we use that design to gain understanding of the original biology.”

Specifically the producers were interested in a robotic salamander the team had created in 2013. The producers asked if they could make a crocodile and monitor lizard version for the documentary. The resulting robots have cameras instead of eyes and were used to film the real life behavior of their natural counterparts in the wild for the episode of the series called "Spy in the Wild."

robotic monitor lizardEPFL/Video screen capture

The remote-controlled robots were designed after the researchers intensely studied their walking movements so that they could blend in. The scientists used motors in places of joints and artificial bones made of carbon fiber and a latex waterproof skin that allowed them to get wet. Within the robot was a mini computer that powered the movements, which could be remotely controlled from up to 500 meters away.

While the robots helped the film makers to capture amazing moments in the wild, the Biorobotics researchers were learning a lot as well. The conditions in Murchison Falls Natural Park in Uganda where the robots were used were hot, humid and muddy, all things that tested and even compromised the robots at times, like the battery pack overheating in the afternoon sun.

The team now can apply what they've learned to make better robots for future applications like search and rescue missions.

Planet Earth II has already started airing on BBC in the U.K. and will debut on February 18 on BBC America.

Tags: Animals | Biomimicry | Technology

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