Lazy ‘SlothBot’ Could Change Conservation Forever

SlothBot: Sluggishly making its way through a dense forest of trees, the sloth takes its time. Slow as molasses. Slow on purpose. While perched on a 100-foot-long steel line, the small critter looks like a lazy acrobat. To be clear, it’s not about making people happy or entertaining them. Sleight of hand, observation, and gathering as much sunshine as possible are the priorities of this sloth.

This robot is fueled by the sun, after all.

Researchers from the Atlanta Botanical Garden are closely monitoring SlothBot. The robot’s googly eyes and 3D-printed casing may be glimpsed from the garden’s high Canopy Walk. The sloth is hard at work gathering important environmental data, such as temperature and carbon dioxide levels, even if it may not appear to be doing so.

SlothBot acts as a type of private detective. That unassuming look will be critical if the robot is to succeed in its mission—so it moves at a sluggish pace to avoid detection.

A Spectacular Mystery

Mysterious things are happening in the Ecuadorian jungle. Researchers at the 825-acre Siempre Verde research site in the Andes are baffled by the genus of unusual orchids they’ve discovered.

“We know where the orchids are, but we don’t know what is pollinating them,” explains Emily Coffey, vice president of conservation and research at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

About 90 percent of the world’s Stanhopea orchids currently reside in the botanical garden. Understanding how pollinators interact with these plants might be the key to their long-term survival. Low-lying areas are home to Stanhopea orchids, also known as euglossine-pollinated orchids, which thrive with the euglossine bees that give them their common name.

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As Coffey puts it, these bees are “the most lovely bees you’ll ever see in your life. Their bright metallic-looking heads, thoraxes, and abdomens are well-known to her, having studied them for years. The U.S. Forest Service refers to these plants as “living gems.”

Gongora orchid pollen is collected by a euglossine bee in Panama.
It isn’t known whether or if these arachnids reside up high in the Andes, where these orchids have also been found by scientists. How far up rivers do the bees fly to collect oil, and how far down do they return? Coffey amazes me. Insects and orchids may or may not go hand in hand.

This is where SlothBot comes in.

It’s difficult to study wildlife in the rainforest. These large nets between trees must be installed by researchers in order for them to obtain access to particular species yet these nets are expensive to deploy, difficult to set up and interfere with the surrounding natural ecosystem. Humans are also bulky, cumbersome, and prone to causing havoc. This little robot may stay out in the open in order to gather data that scientists would otherwise miss.

Magnus Egerstedt, the brains of SlothBot, describes it as “a detective narrative”. As the head of Georgia Tech’s electrical and computer engineering department, Egerstedt focuses on the development of robots that can move in sophisticated ways. “In the jungle, we don’t know much about what happens beneath the tree canopy.”

 Lazy 'SlothBot' Could Change Conservation Forever

When Egerstedt constructed SlothBot, he did it to aid ecologists like Coffey in their research on endangered species of plants and animals, starting with the euglonsed orchids.

Using a variety of sensors, the robot will gather information about its surroundings. If ecologists can compare this data with what they already know about high-altitude insects, or find fresh indications as to which little flyers pollinate the blooms high up in the mountains, they will be able to make useful comparisons. SlothBot’s onboard camera may be able to capture the insects in action.

Slow Lane Living

To have SlothBot, we would not have gone on vacation to Costa Rica.

He became “mildly infatuated” with the two-toed sloths searching for food in the canopy above during this expedition. That they even existed baffled him: How could nature sustain such a massive body on such a little food was beyond him. Egerstedt was inspired by the sloth’s metabolism, which he hoped to replicate in a machine.

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