These days, it’s easy to think of intelligence (or at least processing capabilities) as being a base requirement of robotics. But, that wasn’t always the case. Early robots, such as Westinghouse’s Elektro, which was exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, had no digital electronics whatsoever. Yet, Elektro was able to speak, walk, take voice commands, and even smoke cigarettes.
In the absence of modern microcontrollers and sensors, ingenuity reigns supreme. Roboticists from Japan’s Osaka University demonstrate this with a brainless robot that can autonomously adjust its gait by mechanical means. The small robot just has four low-torque DC motors, but can adapt its gait to the environment.
This is reminiscent of Theo Jansen’s famous Stranbeests, which roam freely using only energy from the wind. The key to the Osaka researcher’s concept is mechanical weakness—the structure of the bot is deliberately flexible, and the motors are intentionally low-torque. This allows the bot to naturally fall into an efficient rhythm as the motor voltage is increased.
While practical uses for the prototype are limited, it does prove that our modern reliance on complex sensors (and processing) may not be necessary. Future robot designs may be better off utilizing mechanics over electronics for some systems. And, that move away from complex digital systems may ultimately increase reliability.