Watch: Vampire bat robot uses its wings for walking

This robot is so talented it’s scary. Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne have built a robot inspired by the vampire bat that can walk and fly using its foldable wings.

The Deployable Air Land Exploration Robot, or DALER, was described in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics and could lead the way to rescue robots that can survey a disaster zone from above and then crawl into the wreckage below.

A team led by researchers at the Swiss institute (known as EPFL) have been looking at designing such a transformer-like robot for years; after all, most bots are built for one purpose alone, whether it’s wheeling, walking, flying or swimming. But in a complex environment, sometimes it’s useful to have more than one way to move.


The researchers drew from the vampire bat for inspiration. Known formally as Desmodus rotundus, it drinks blood only for sustenance (usually surviving off of large mammals like cattle). While this bat doesn’t look pretty on the ground, it knows how to crawl and hop using its wings and hind legs. When walking, most of its body weight is shifted forward on the wings.

The scientists wanted to make wings that could also function as legs because that would mean they wouldn’t have to build a whole extra set of structures for walking. Doing more with less keeps the weight of the robot down, making it less complicated, and probably cheaper to produce.

“Wings’ adaptive morphology allows the robot to modify the shape of its body in order to increase its efficiency during terrestrial locomotion,” the study authors wrote. “Furthermore, aerial and terrestrial capabilities are powered by a single locomotor apparatus, therefore it reduces the total complexity and weight of this multi-modal robot.”

The wing-legs are called whegs (which seems odd, given that the wheel-legs used by these termite robots were also called whegs). In any case, after the robot comes in for a landing, the wings quickly scrunch, looking like the pleats in a curtain that’s been pulled in. Then two end pieces on each wingtip unlock and start spinning, allowing the robot to now “walk” forward at 6 centimeters (more than 2 inches) per second. (It’s much faster in the air, reaching 20 meters --more than 65 feet -- per second).

The robo-bat seems to be a step up from a bulkier, non-collapsible design prototype that EPFL described in 2013, though on the ground the newer model appears to be somewhat slower; the previous DALER bot could go at a 20 centimeter-per-second clip (almost eight inches).

Such multifunctional robots could become useful in all kinds of operations where it is risky to humans. That sort of dual use may even be welcomed on other planets – NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory just last week unveiled a proposal to equip future Mars rovers with a 2.2-pound scouting helicopter.

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