Science for Robotics and Robotics for Science

Paolo Dario, Editorial Board

Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa, Italy

One of the ambitions of Science Robotics is to root robotics research deeply into science. Biorobotics represents such an ambition: It keeps the living world (and thus life sciences) at its core and investigates different applications of bioinspired machines and robots, as well as validates scientific hypotheses. The power of the latter is somewhat underestimated, but in fact it may represent what really makes robotics worthy of constituting a scientific and not only a technological or engineering pursuit. Robotics science can be pursued in two different ways: the first, according to the model of synthetic science, in which engineers create new knowledge (and thus science) by addressing and solving a series of problems; the second, by using robots to unveil natural principles. The latter approach has been pursued explicitly by some seminal papers in robotics that have appeared in the past 15 years.

In many cases, robots with advanced functionalities have been designed on the basis of new scientific principles observed independently. This is the case of climbing robots mimicking how geckos stably adhere to smooth vertical surfaces and roofs. The paper of Kim et al., published in 2008 in IEEE Transactions on Robotics, for example, grounds its roots in the scientific evidence published in Nature by Autumn et al. There, the authors performed the first direct measurements of the attraction force between surfaces and gecko structural feet elements, called setae, through a micro-electromechanical system. This paper provided the first scientific explanation of a gecko’s abilities that reside in van der Waals forces. Subsequent papers aimed at developing gecko-like robots were based on reproducing setae-based locomotion, through microfabricated surfaces.

Another seminal work published in Science by Ijspeert et al. (2007) presents the idea of using robots to validate a scientific hypothesis. In this paper, the authors investigated the salamander spinal cord architecture, which governs the animal locomotion behavior, by building a numerical model of the neurons constituting the spinal cord and by reproducing the model in a robot prototype. In this way, the authors were able to validate biological hypotheses concerning salamander locomotion strategies. In addition, they also provided the robotics community with a novel bio-inspired methodology for controlling the non–steady-state locomotion of robots with multiple degrees of freedom.

Along this line, another important seminal work was published by Libby et al. in Nature in 2012. The paper aimed to shed light on the role of tail to control pitch in lizards. To explore this biological problem, the authors developed a lizard-sized robot provided with an active tail and a sensory feedback to stabilize the pitch. They tested this prototype robot in different locomotion scenarios. Results allowed them to conclude that lizards control the swing of their tail in order to stabilize body attitude in the sagittal plane. In addition, the technology developed showed promise for advanced maneuverable search and rescue robots.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the paper recently published in Science by Koh et al. (2015). Here, the scientific problem was to discover how semi-aquatic arthropods, such as water striders, are able to jump on water surfaces. To elucidate this behavior, the authors built a miniaturized jumping robotic insect (overall mass: 68 mg) and demonstrated that water striders can accomplish jumping tasks by exploiting the dominant role of surface tension and by maximizing momentum transfer during jumping.

Papers like the ones mentioned above are those that the editorial board of Science Robotics is looking for. We believe that the submission of such kinds of papers should be strongly encouraged, since they could entrench the basic science research of robotics.