Mini-robot helps answer giant dinosaur questions

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When Ronald Fearing and Kevin Peterson, both engineers at the University of California in Berkeley, set out to create an addition to their previous innovations for military robotics, they didn't expect to stumble upon an ancient debate about prehistoric winged creatures. However, that's exactly what they did, according to a report in Wired.

The two main theories of the evolution of flight are the "trees-down" theory and the "ground-up" theory. The trees-down theory states that winged creatures used their wings to glide down from trees and other heights. The ground-up theory says that prehistoric birds used their wings to help them gather momentum while traversing inclined levels. Evidence via fossils has not yielded any solid conclusions.

When the two California-based engineers developed their DASH+Wings robot, a 25-gram machine, they realized it might be useful to help solve the debate.

DASH+Wings is a continuation of their six-legged robot called, DASH, an acronym for Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod, which is one of multiple devices that the group has developed for U.S. military reconnaissance. Since the small, ground-based robots have difficulty in some terrain, especially those with steep inclines, the team decided to add wings to the robot. The propulsion from flapping wings was meant to help the devices conquer difficult terrain, Wired reported.

They soon called Robert Dudley, a paleobiologist at UC Berkeley, believing that their robot may be able to help settle the dinosaur debate.

The team then ran the robot through a series of tests which monitored its ability to climb inclines, run across flat services and glide. All of these tests were performed with and without wings. The results showed that the flapping wings helped with every test, especially gliding. As a result, the robot indirectly supports the trees-down theory, Peterson asserted. However, the conclusion has still not been reached.

"This study is a beautiful example of how relatively simple bio-inspired robots can address questions that are difficult or impossible to test in living organisms,” Brandon Jackson, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Montana in Missoula, told Wired.

Although the DASH+Wings robot has wings, it can't necessarily fly as well as other robotics. The Paraswift from Disney Research and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has the ability to catapult out of a plane and use its paraglider to safely land on the ground, according to NewScientist.

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