Robot Sloth Could Very Slowly Help Save World’s Endangered Ecosystems

This particular tree-dweller at the Atlanta Botanical Garden shines oddly metallic.
Derya Ozdemir

The sloth: the living meme and legend of a world that moves relentlessly fast  — yet that doesn't concern them anyway. French naturalist Georges Buffon was the first to describe the curious creature in his encyclopedia of life sciences in 1749, writing:

"Slowness, habitual pain, and stupidity are the results of this strange and bungled conformation. These sloths are the lowest form of existence. One more defect would have made their lives impossible." 

Ouch — well, at least the engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology thought that the good-old sloth had something special and it turns out that its "strategically slow" nature makes the sloth a role model for conservation robotics.


The engineers decided to honor the sloth by creating a slow-moving robot, SlothBot, that collects environmental data such as temperature and carbon dioxide levels over long periods of time thanks to its conserving nature. 

Robot Sloth Could Very Slowly Help Save World’s Endangered Ecosystems
Source: Georgia Tech

Magnus Egerstedt, professor at the Georgia Tech School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said, "SlothBot embraces slowness as a design principle. That’s not how robots are typically designed today, but being slow and hyper-energy efficient will allow SlothBot to linger in the environment to observe things we can only see by being present continuously for months, or even years."

How does it work and why is it so adorable?

Its current design consists of a 3D-printed shell that houses its motor, gearing, batter system, and a suite of sensors. An attached solar panel powers the sloth, and it three-foot-long (0.9-m). 

Robot Sloth Could Very Slowly Help Save World’s Endangered Ecosystems
Source: Georgia Tech

The robot only moves when it is absolutely necessary and when it does, it does so while hugging a cable between two trees. The robot is programmed to very slowly move up and down, using its sensors to track things like temperature, weather, and carbon dioxide levels.

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Well, the adorableness appears to be the incidental bonus. 

Begining life as a long-term environmental observer

The SlothBoth is currently demonstrating its very slow capabilities in the canopy of the Atlanta Botanical Garden. The only thing it does is shuffling up and down the cable, seeking out sunlight when it needs to recharge its batteries via solar, and picking up valuable data for the future of our planet.

Robot Sloth Could Very Slowly Help Save World’s Endangered Ecosystems
Source: Georgia Tech

Emily Coffey, VP for conservation and research at the Garden, says, "SlothBot could do some of our research remotely and
help us understand what’s happening with pollinators, interactions between plants and animals, and other phenomena that are difficult to observe otherwise.

"With the rapid loss of biodiversity and with more than a quarter of the world’s plants potentially heading toward extinction, SlothBot offers us another way to work toward conserving those species."

SlothBot could be crucial for tracking endangered species and changes in their environments, one example being orchid pollination by endangered frogs, with minimal intrusion by humans or having to overcome obstacles like rocks.

Enlightening factors that affect ecosystems and help protect rare species

The Slothbot will enjoy its stay in Atlanta for the next few months. The team is hoping that it will provide the necessary data that will enlighten our understanding of the factors that affect ecosystems and help protect rare species. 

Researchers are saying that the SlothBot could tackle larger areas by switching from cable to cable in the future. 

"The most exciting goal we’ll demonstrate with SlothBot is the union of robotics and technology with conservation,” Coffey says. "We do conservation research on imperiled plants and ecosystems around the world, and SlothBot will help us find new and exciting ways to advance our research and conservation goals."

You can watch SlothBot's slow antics in the video below.