Emerging Technologies

Cockroaches: The key to climbing robots, because we're too hard to copy

An american cockroach (Periplaneta americana), on which a radio tag is attached, is seen at the Universite libre de Bruxelles (ULB) in Brussels March 6, 2015. Isaac Planas Sitja from Spain, a researcher at the ULB conducting the experiment, said they observed "personalities" among cockroaches qualifying them in two groups: the "bold or explorers" and the "shy or cautious". During the experiment on the behaviour, analysing personality in the context of collective dynamics of these insects,  cockroaches take shelter under a red plastic circle inside an arena. Observations show that "shy" individuals spent less time exploring the arena and quickly go under one of the shelters, while those classified as "bold" took more time exploring the arena. Picture taken March 6, 2015. REUTERS/Yves Herman (BELGIUM - Tags: ANIMALS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)

Insects are a better model for building robots than humans. Image: REUTERS/Yves Herman (BELGIUM - Tags: ANIMALS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)

Dom Galeon
Writer, Futurism
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Less Clunky Movement

Some believe that the most sophisticated robots always come in humanoid form. The limitations of such a form, however, become evident when the bots begin to walk. These androids may look human, but they hardly move like one. There is obviously a design problem with imitating humans, so researchers have figured that when it comes to creating robots that move flawlessly, it’s better to imitate insects.

A team from the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), Harvard University, and the Pennsylvania State University suggested a rather unlikely model: cockroaches. The critters we try so hard to banish from of our homes are the subject of their study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Don’t judge these insects just by their appearance. The researchers explain that cockroaches are capable of overcoming obstacles in the fastest possible way. Instead of working to avoid obstacles, they just bump into them while moving fast, taking advantage of their robust bodies. “Cockroaches running at over 1 m [meter] or 50 body lengths per second transition from the floor to a vertical wall within 75 ms [millisecond] by using their head like an automobile bumper, mechanically mediating the manoeuvre [sic],” the study notes. What they propose is a design similar to a cockroach, and they demonstrated this using a palm-sized, legged robot.

Fast Climber

The robot modeled after a cockroach is designed to be able to navigate a wall.

The key is the soft exoskeleton that allows for a kind of movement that could change the “next generation of running, climbing, and flying robots where the use of the body can off-load the demand for rapid sensing and actuation,” the researchers wrote.

Mechanically mediated control in human technologies. (a) Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod Robot (DASH) [19] performing a rapid head-first impact transition with no sensory input. Its robust construction enables it to perform high-speed manoeuvres without suffering damage while approaching the wall at over 80 cm s−1. (b) Volkswagen Beetle after incurring significant damages during a frontal impact crash test (Courtesy: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, www.iihs.org). A typical coefficient of restitution for a front automobile bumper is ≈0.3 or 91% energy absorption. (c) Miniature (7 g) jumping robot [33] with self-recovery capabilities enabled by the robust exoskeletal cage. (d) Gimball robot with passive exoskeletal cage to use collisions for manoeuvring in cluttered environments [34]. (e) Airburr [35], an indoor flying robot designed specifically to withstand collision and self-manoeuvre using a shock-absorbing exoskeleton. (f) Insect inspired mechanically resilient multicopter [36] whose frame can undergo large deformations without permanent damage during collisions.
Mechanically mediated control in human technologies. Image: Jayaram, K., et al./Journal of the Royal Society Interface

Instead of sensing the path ahead and adjusting its movement as required, the team’s robot crashes into the wall and then rolls around it, similar to how a cockroach would. This way, the robot overcomes the need to quickly anticipate the environment ahead of it, especially when it is moving fast. The study says that “by relying on the mechanics of the body to mediate manoeuvres [sic]”, rather than on sensors that control the robot’s movements, the researchers were able to devise a machine that’s robust “even under extreme conditions.” Like the idea behind humanoid robots, this design is inspired by nature. Except, a cockroach-like bot is more equipped to handle tougher terrain.

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Emerging TechnologiesNature and Biodiversity
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