This robotic sloth is (slowly) monitoring endangered species

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Georgia Tech made a sloth-like robot to help endangered species.
Image: Georgia Tech | Rob Felt

What if it was possible to observe endangered species in their own habitat around the clock? Conservationists believe that doing so is the best way to find out how to save these animals.

With a new robot from the Georgia Institute of Technology, they’re able to do just that. A research team developed a solar-powered, energy-efficient robot that moves slowly across the treetops—just like a sloth. It could be the key to making discoveries about endangered animals.

Slow is Fast

When most people think of animal-inspired robots, something fast comes to mind. Bots like Boston Dynamics’ Spot and MIT’s Cheetah Robot take inspiration from the animal kingdom with quick, nimble movements. Georgia Tech’s new SlothBot also draws inspiration from an animal, though one not commonly associated with robotics.

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Like the mammal it’s named for, the SlothBot slowly moves across the treetops while monitoring animals, plants, and the environment beneath it. Visitors to the Atlanta Botanical Garden will see the first working prototype of the bot in action. It will operate on a cable strung between two trees near the Garden’s popular Canopy Walk. During its tenure, SlothBot will monitor temperature data, weather, and carbon monoxide levels.

“SlothBot embraces slowness as a design principle,” says Magnus Egerstedt, a professor from Georgia Tech’s school of electrical and computer engineering. “That’s not how robots are typically designed today, but being slow and hyper-energy efficient will allow SlothBot to linger in the environment to observe things we can only see by being present continuously for months, or even years.”

The unconventional robot measures just three feet long and features a 3D-printed shell to keep its internal components safe from the elements. Notably, SlothBot is programmed to move only when necessary. Once its batteries need to charge, the bot will autonomously seek out sunlight to do so.

Embracing Uniqueness

The key to SlothBot’s success is its unique approach to saving energy. Of course, that wouldn’t be possible without a clever design. The research team had to think carefully about its locomotion techniques before rolling out a functional prototype.

A robot with wheels is vulnerable to things like rocky terrain and mud. Drones that fly burn too much energy to remain in one area for a significant length of time. Something with tank treads—like a Mars rover—would hypothetically work, but is loud and can destroy fragile ecosystems, scaring away the wildlife it seeks to observe.

That’s why Egerstedt and his team settled on the wire-crawling design.

However, the team still did draw inspiration from the Mars Exploration Rovers. They were able to gather data about the Red Planet for more than a dozen years thanks to their energy-conscious operation. Since they explored leisurely, the rovers were able to operate for much longer than if they moved around quickly.

As for SlothBot, the team hopes that their creation will feel like a natural part of the environment rather than a foreign piece of equipment.

“It’s really fascinating to think about robots becoming part of the environment, a member of an ecosystem,” Egerstedt said. “While we’re not building an anatomical replica of the living sloth, we believe our robot can be integrated to be part of the ecosystem it’s observing like a real sloth.”

New Generation of Conservation

Thanks to its unique approach to conservation, SlothBot has the backing of some noteworthy organizations. The National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research are perhaps the most influential. Conservationists envision a future where the slow-moving robot helps identify abiotic trends that affect critical ecosystems.

Emily Coffey, vice president for conservation and research at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, says, “SlothBot could do some of our research remotely and help us understand what’s happening with pollinators, interactions between plants and animals, and other phenomena that are difficult to observe otherwise.”

At the Garden, SlothBot works on a single 100-foot cable. However, it will eventually be able to move from cable to cable. Doing so lets the robot cover greater distances once it enters real ecosystems. It isn’t hard to imagine the bot blending in and collecting data high in the treetops of the Amazon without disrupting the environment’s fragile balance.

“The most exciting goal we’ll demonstrate with SlothBot is the union of robotics and technology with conservation,” says Coffey.

She adds, “We do conservation research on imperiled plants and ecosystems around the world, and SlothBot will help us find new and exciting ways to advance our research and conservation goals.”

Even More Potential

It’s easy to see how SlothBot will impact conservation projects. However, that isn’t all the team has in store for its slow-moving creation. The robot could also have applications in areas like precision agriculture.

Per a Georgia Tech press release, “the robot’s camera and other sensors traveling in overhead wires could provide early detection of crop diseases, measure humidity, and watch for insect infestation.”

As modern farmers look for any way to increase their yield to meet the world’s demand, technology is becoming more common in the agriculture industry. Perhaps one day a robotic sloth won’t just save endangered species, it may also help solve the world’s hunger crisis.

After completing its test run at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, SlothBot will move to South America. There, it will observe things like orchid pollination and the lives of endangered frogs.

The team also hopes that SlothBot will serve as a way to engage people with conservation.

“This will help us tell the story of the merger between technology and conservation. It’s a unique way to engage the public and bring forward a new way to tell our story,” says Coffey.

Egerstedt notes that SlothBot will be particularly interesting to children who visit the Garden. He says, “Thanks to SlothBot, I’m hoping we will get an entirely new generation interested in what robotics can do to make the world better.”

Because of breakthroughs like this, the future looks bright—even if it moves slower than we envision.

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