Magnificent Maneuvers

Robots designed to move like cockroaches and geckos

It’s suspected that the earliest forms of cockroaches were present over 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous period while our modern roach’s history dates back to the more recent Cretaceous period, which ended about 65 million years ago. The end of that era demolished the dinosaurs but anyone living in an urban environment knows that the cockroaches managed to survive!

Many of us are repulsed by these little critters but what is it exactly about them that may send shivers down our spines? Some will say they don’t like the way these insects move — they seem to fly down sidewalks, or up walls, able to quickly disappear around corners and bends. It’s long since been stated that the cockroach is one of the most adaptable creatures on earth, but today, scientists are also discovering that what we may find most off-putting about these insects, could be one of their most sophisticated attributes— in fact it seems these bugs can pull off moves that rival Fred Astaire’s!

Researchers from the Biophysics group at the University of California, Berkeley,  stumbled upon an interesting behaviour while they were investigating how roaches use their antenna to cross gaps between a pair of ramps. When the gaps became too large for the insects to cross,  roaches would simply swing themselves right onto the underside of the ramp by grabbing the end of  it with the claws on their hind legs.  Researchers  also discovered that some lizards and geckos use their hook-like toenails to perform a similar pendulum-type swing when trying to escape from potential predators.

As you can see in the video above, there are important ways that this kind of research can be applied to robotics:  “Today, some robots are good at running, some at climbing, but very few are good at both or transitioning from one behavior to the other. That’s really the challenge now in robotics, to produce robots that can transition on complex surfaces and get into dangerous areas that first responders can’t get into,” explains Professor Robert Full, an integrative Biology professor at UC Berkeley.

After working with Full’s group, a UC Berkley robotics group, led by Professor Ron Fearing, modified a six-legged, cockroach-inspired robot named  DASH (Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod)  by placing some Velcro on its rear legs. The adapted machine can now reproduce the insect’s maneuver in very similar fashion but it’s up to you to decide whether it’s the robot or the roach that performs the stealthiest disappearing act!

If you’re interested in research on these kinds of robots, check out Living Machines 2012: The International Conference on Biomimetic and Biohybrid Systems taking place from the 9th-12th of July in Barcelona, Spain.


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