Inspired by the strange motion of the basilisk lizard, Carnegie Mellon University mechanical engineers have built a tiny robot that can sprint across land and water with equal dexterity.

Although it is only a basic prototype, the researchers imagine their amphibious Water Runner robot could be equipped with biochemical sensors that monitor water quality; deployed with cameras for spying, search-and-rescue or exploration; or outfitted with bacteria to break down pollutants.

“A legged robot that can walk across land and water literally has the entire world open to it,” said assistant professor of engineering Metin Sitti, who heads Carnegie Mellon’s NanoRobotics Lab.

By understanding the mechanics of living creatures such as the gecko lizard, water-strider bugs, beetles and bacteria, Sitti’s research team is constructing a veritable zoo of fully autonomous, biologically inspired robots that can fly, swim, climb walls and navigate terrain of all kinds.