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Published: 03 December 2020

From rockets to robot geckos: Meet Dr Rob Siddall

Dr Rob Siddall joined our Department of Mechanical Engineering Sciences earlier this year as a Lecturer in Robotics. And his pet research projects often involve real pets!

How did you end up studying robotics?

I began to study a PhD in rocketry, but it turned into a robotics PhD when I started developing an aircraft that could fly into water.

I’ve always liked to make things, too. I build odds and ends of furniture, and I’ve got an electric skateboard and an electric bike that I made. Robotics is a nice way to combine a love of craftsmanship with maths and physics.

How did you get into animal-inspired mechatronics?

I spent a lot of time looking at animals when I was making my aquatic airplane. There are obviously a lot of different creatures that move from flight to water, and there’s some cool biomechanical research in that area.

After that, I wanted to observe animals directly, so I accepted a fellowship at the Max Planck Institute to help study the acrobatics of lizards in rainforests.

What can lizards teach us about robots?

The essential difference between an animal and a robot is that an animal can deal with change and it can adapt. You can pick an animal up and put it in new terrain and, generally, it’ll be fine.

But a robot can’t cope with too much change. It’s designed for a specific job in a specific environment. So, if you can figure out the small tricks animals use to be good at gliding, while also being good at running, climbing and swimming, we can use those in robotics.

How did you gather that data?

We encouraged animals to do something challenging, like climbing up an unpredictable surface or attempting a long jump. This makes the animal show us what locomotion tricks it has up its sleeve. But one of the problems of working with animals is you can’t get huge data sets.

Why is that?

You’re concerned for the animal’s welfare, so you can’t stress it out too much by making it perform difficult tasks all day. And sometimes an animal may not feel like helping you out.

So, I’ve been building robots to be as similar as possible to the animals I’m observing, then using that robot as my test subject. I can watch an animal climb a tree 10 times or I can watch a robot based on that animal climb a tree 10,000 times and gather much more data. If can you do both animal and robot experiments, together they’re very powerful.

With a robot, I can test different aspects of its locomotion, too. I can alter the feet or change the software to make it move differently.

What are the key areas you’re researching at Surrey?

Most flying aircraft are rigid foam things and they’re not massively adaptable. I want to see how we can make flight better, particularly using soft and flexible structures.

This research is something we can apply in conservation. By using robots to observe forests, we can gather more data. I want to develop robots that can be helpful tools to monitor and preserve the environment, so that hopefully we can give back to nature, as well as learn from it.

How will that work?

We need robots that can exist for longer periods of time in unstructured environments. At the moment, the robots we deploy to do this work usually need a human controller and they can only operate in small areas. I want to develop robots that can spend a week in a challenging environment like a forest, without getting stuck or falling over, or needing a human to go in and fix them.

I’m also looking at using robots to monitor rivers. A recent report from the Environment Agency suggests only 14% of the UK’s rivers are up to standard, so there’s a real need for this type of monitoring. These robots will require ground locomotion and swimming capabilities. I’m hoping to start navigating local rivers with a robot soon.

What do you do when you’re not researching and inventing?

Me and my partner, Rebecca, are having a baby in six months, so I’m busy creating a nursery. We’ve painted a wall mural with the Moon and a rocket, and we’ve painted an ocean on the other side. I threw in some weird and wonderful ancient creatures like Hallucigenia and Anomalocaris – I hope the baby doesn’t mind! I’m also currently stitching canvas to build a crib.

Learn more about studying in our Department of Mechanical Engineering Sciences.

Rob also has a PhD position available to study riverine robotics.