Researchers at South Korea's Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology have attached small robots to the back of a turtle, allowing the machine to steer the animal by delivering it snacks.

The team called the hybrid animal-robot interaction a parasitic robot system, which imitates the relationship between parasites in nature and their hosts.

Led by Professor Phil-Seung Lee of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, the researchers took an animal’s locomotive abilities to apply the theory of using a robot as a parasite. The robot is attached to its host animal in a way similar to an actual parasite, and it interacts with the host through particular devices and algorithms.

Certain kinds of real parasites can manipulate the behaviour of the host to increase the probability of its own reproduction. Similarly, in the proposed concept of a “parasitic robot,” a specific behaviour is induced by the parasitic robot in its host to benefit the robot.

The team chose a turtle as their first host animal and designed a parasitic robot that can perform “stimulus-response training.” The parasitic robot, which is attached to the turtle, can induce the turtle’s object-tracking behaviour through repeated training sessions.

The robot then simply guides it using LEDs and feeds it snacks as a reward for going in the right direction through a programmed algorithm. After training sessions lasting five weeks, the parasitic robot can successfully control the direction of movement of the host turtles in the waypoint navigation task in a water tank.

"This hybrid animal-robot interaction system could provide an alternative solution to the limitations of conventional mobile robot systems in various fields, and could also act as a useful interaction system for the behavioural sciences," said Ph.D. candidate Dae-Gun Kim, first author of the research.