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Boffins build miniature robot Jesus

Walks on water; but can't turn it to wine

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American boffins report that they have developed the necessary technology for robots which can walk on water.

A team from Carnegie Mellon University, led by assistant prof Metin Sitti, took for their inspiration the well known water-strider insect, or "Jesus Bug", which makes use of surface tension to stand and walk on water without sinking.

Mitti and his acolytes, originally enough, dubbed their robo test platform STRIDER, for Surface Tension based Robotic Insect Dynamic ExploreR (a clear example of a well-known syndrome: Contrived Unsuitable Technical Names for Projects with the Acronym as Sole Target for the Effort, or CUTNPASTE naming).

The Carnegie Mellon insecto-bots can walk on water just like the real critters, though rather slower. According to an article in last week's Scientific American, the diminutive god-bots can stroll across water on their teflon-coated legs at a mere "several inches per second", rather than the feet per second that real water-bugs can achieve.

Teflon coated legs are all very well, but Mitti reckons that truly impressive water-walking machines need to have lots of microscopic hairs on their legs instead, to trap air and increase their water-repelling properties. For reasons not made clear by Scientific American, he's apparently looking to augment his tiny god-droids with hairs harvested "from geckos' feet".

Presumably, the terrible costs of this research - potentially hundreds of bald-footed geckos, skidding helplessly about and falling off walls, a laughingstock among their friends - is justified by possible benefits to humanity in future. Anyway, for all we know, gecko foot hair grows back just as a sheep's fleece does.

In fact, if Mitti's efforts towards "microfabrication of synthetic hairs" come to nothing, there could one day be a large population of farmed geckos, bred for the adhesiveness and luxuriance of their foot hair like so many lizardoid hobbits. Each year they would be shorn smooth to supply the insatiable demands of the miniature-robot-Jesus industry.

Getting back to the divinely-capable droids themselves, they'll need a lot of work before they're up to proper Biblical levels:

[25] "But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary."

[26] "And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea."

(King James Bible, Matthew 14)

Which seems to suggest ability to walk on the actual sea during a storm, not just across a flat pond or something. Just how much funding there might be available to achieve this is open to question. Apart from the obvious miniature-robot-Jesus market, uses for this tech could be a trifle sparse. Scientific American suggests "environmental monitoring of still-water ecosystems... and opening up a whole new form of bugging."

Full coverage from Scientific American is here, and an abstract of the underlying academic paper is here. ®

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