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Introducing the sala-bot: A salamander-like robot shows how swimmers can be walkers

Around 400 million years ago, vertebrate animals first ventured from the ocean onto land. How did those first fishy explorers figure out how to walk on solid ground? A new salamander-like robot may provide some answers.

Jan Auke Ijspeert of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland and his colleagues built a robot that has a control system which mimics parts of the amphibian's nervous system. The signals that run through the robot's "spinal cord" to its limbs allow it to switch between swimming and walking.

The researchers chose a salamander as the inspiration for their robot because salamanders are probably similar to the first vertebrates that lived on land. The team took the robot to the beach and showed that it could walk and swim the way a real salamander does.

The commands that tell the robot how to move are sent wirelessly from a PC.

The computer system that drives the robot's movement is based on the nervous system of a fish called the lamprey, which swims in a style similar to the salamander. The researchers modified the robot-version of the nervous system in order to produce walking motion too.

This study may therefore help researchers figure out exactly what needs to change in a swimming animal's nervous system so that it evolves into a walker.

This research appears in the 9 March issue of the journal Science.