Leaping lizards and agile dinosaurs may have used their tails as stabilizers, a technique that UC Berkeley biologists and researchers are studying in hopes of developing robots with increased capabilities.

The interdisciplinary team focused on testing the value of a tail. In the lab, lizards were coaxed to run down a track, vault off a low platform, and land on a vertical surface with a shelter on top. When the friction on the platform was reduced, lizards slipped, causing their bodies to potentially spin out of control. When the researchers saw how the lizard used its tail to counteract the spin, they created a mathematical model as well as Tailbot — a toy car equipped with a tail and small gyroscope to sense body position — to better understand the animal’s skills.

With a tail but no feedback from sensors about body position, Tailbot took a nose dive when driven off a ramp, mimicking a lizard’s take-off. When body position was sensed and fed back to the tail motor, however, Tailbot was able to stabilize its body in midair. The actively controlled tail effectively redirected the angular momentum of the body into the tail’s swing, as happens with leaping lizards.

Tailbot’s design could help advance an area in robotics known as inertial assisted robotics. Researchers are now investigating the role of the tail in controlling pitch, roll, and yaw while running.

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Also: Read this story about the latest in innovation in smart robotics.

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