Ever seen a critter that moves like a spider, behaves like an ant, sees like a bat, and twitters like a bird? No one had, until Ohio State University assistant professor Ken Rinaldo built an army of ten robotic chimeras, each one capable of doing all those things.

The art and technology lecturer has long been interested in robotics that takes cues from the natural world. So it makes sense that Rinaldo had an epiphany when he heard entomologist Guy Théraulaz refer to ants as “rule-driven systems.”

“I got excited because computers are rule-driven systems as well,” Rinaldo says. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if they could feed themselves?’ It would be solving one of the holy grails of robotics.”

And so, in 2005, Rinaldo and talented helpers created the interactive installation Autotelematic Spider Bots for Britain’s AV Festival. The group employed 3D modeling, rapid prototyping, and custom coding to produce six-legged robots that crawl around a rink in search of food and human interaction. The robots see using ultrasonic eyes, similar to bat sonar, on the end of their springy, antenna-like necks. As pulses of energy bounce off spectators, the curious arachnids approach and engage, using sounds akin to sped-up bird chatter.

A real spider’s gotta eat. So do Rinaldo’s bots. They sense when they’re hungry via a battery tester, and find food (a charger equipped with an infrared beacon) thanks to built-in sensors. To juice up, the robots again mimic biology: two rods out front dock with chargers, much like spider appendages, called chelicerae, bring food toward the mouth. As for the ant analogy, while the picnic invaders use pheremonal signals to broadcast where the fried chicken is, the bots use Bluetooth to pass on their paydirt’s locale.

“I was interested to see if you could find a way to have a series of creatures that could communicate to the group, while also interacting with participants in the installation,” Rinaldo says. “I have a core belief that natural systems represent the strongest models of what can work.”

>> Ken Rinaldo:

Spider Bots in Action: