Cockroaches may be the most hated creatures in this planet for they have always been associated with bacteria and germs. However, the most recent breakthrough in the field of robotics was inspired by the same detested insects.
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins and the Harvard University observed that cockroaches don’t avoid walls and pavements when they are traversing terrains. Instead, roaches crash into hard walls and create a force from the collision which launched them upwards vertical surfaces.
Essentially, cockroaches can run towards a wall at high speed, collide and then dissipate energy to be able to bounce back and shift the direction from a horizontal to a vertical position.
With this, researchers believed that cockroaches could go where humans can’t. The insects would penetrate areas even after earthquakes or would explore alien surface of another planet.
This spatial ability has been the inspiration of scientists in designing robots that can be used for military and rescue operations in the future. Mastering that particular kinesthetic ability of cockroaches will significantly cut the cost of making robots. Instead of equipping them with expensive sensors to navigate the terrain, robots can instead be programmed to crash into an obstacle and launch itself into elevated surface.
Johns Hopkins designed a multi-legged robot that copies cockroaches’ running patterns. The team carefully analyzed the physics behind how the cockroaches move and decided that the robot needed a tail to replicate the cockroaches.
“Where they live, you have all sorts of stuff around you, like dense vegetation or fallen leaves or branches or roots. Wherever they go, they run into these obstacles. We’re trying to understand the principles of how they go through such a complex terrain, and we hope to then transfer those principles to advanced robots,” Chen Li, senior author of the research explained. Li is also an assistant professor of mechanical engineering who directs the Terradynamics Lab. The lab focuses on movement science at the interface of biology, robotics and physics.
The next step would be to deploy the robots to rubbles of actual demolished building.
Cockroaches were also the inspiration of another paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
The most interesting aspect about cockroaches is that their bodies are the ones who do the computing as they traverse obstacles; it is not their brains or complex sensors, Kaushik Jayaram, a biologist at Harvard University who authored the study explained to The New York Times. “If the current study is right, small robots can be built with simple, robust, smart bodies to safely bump into obstacles instead of using complex and expensive sensing and control systems,” he explained further.