I'm a biologist who studies motion and one of the things we've been looking at recently is what tails do. And in this study we've been looking at how tails can help stabilize an animal as it leaps from the ground to a wall. We discovered in lizards from Africa that when they jump, they could redirect their energy in their tail so that they don't tip over into the wall.
So, when the animal is in the air, it has some tendency to rotate. Because of the slip and something has to move, there's a constraint and something has to move. So, if it wants its body to stay constant the tail has to move. That's what's happening they're just transferring this momentum to the tail.
The idea that tails could act as stabilizers was introduced 40 years ago by a paleontologist looking at therapod dinosaurs like this velociraptor. What he proposed is that this tail could move and redirect the energy to stabilize the body and that is in fact what we found. We modeled this velociraptor and showed that this tail would be even more effective than in the lizards.
In studying this we made both math models and physical models. The physical model is actually a robot called Tailbot. We were able to make the robot do the same thing as the animal.
This is Tailbot and what it is essentially is a two-link system and you have a body link or a rigid body here and you have a tail here. It can actually send a control signal to this motor on the back and whip the tail up and vice versa if it got popped up it can do the same thing and move it down.
If I drop this guy nose first it just drops without doing anything. I'm going to turn it and what it will is detect free fall. It's going to want to be here, it's going to want to correct its posture so that it lands on four wheels. And you can see that in about a body length that it essentially self corrects and lands on four wheels.
We're interested in being able to create a robot that can substitute for the work that has done by dogs and search animals. So you can send a small robot into a disaster situation and find people and do these remote sensing tasks.
Given the state of education, undergraduate research at universities is only going to become more important and should actually be the core of the learning experience. Because we believe that the best teaching is done in a research context and if you do interdisciplinary teaching we believe there is a synergy that can actually help your research. I think our fundamental research really shows the importance of curiosity-based research because you never know where it will lead.