Running Robots Draw Inspiration from Cockroaches

OSU researchers are behind the new study

Lately, more and more research groups around the world have been turning to Mother Nature when it comes to seeking inspiration in a wide variety of fields of research. These range from nanotechnology to robotics, and they all seem to be benefiting very much from this approach. Just recently, experts at the Oregon State University (OSU), who are currently working on robotic locomotion, have turned to analyzing the common cockroach for clues on how to proceed next in their investigation.

The team calls this “bioinspiration” and reveals the fact that, while seeing a cockroach is a nauseating view for some, the insect is in fact a marvel. From engineering and evolutionary standpoints, this six-legged creature is nearly perfect, therefore fit to inspire robotic counterparts, the team believes. Details of its ideas are published in the latest issue of the professional journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics. The team's goal is to construct a robot that can run easily over rugged terrain, the same way a cockroach can. The insect is more apt at this than we are, when compared to scale.

One of the main things to keep in mind, the OSU group reveals, is the fact that the insects use their legs to manage energy storage and expenditure, which is a very important feat. In the case of humans, our bipedal walk is extremely efficient at recycling wasted energy, which is something that allows us to walk or run over long distances. “Humans can run, but frankly our capabilities are nothing compared to what insects and some other animals can do. Cockroaches are incredible. They can run fast, turn on a dime, move easily over rough terrain, and react to perturbations faster than a nerve impulse can travel,” School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering Assistant Professor John Schmitt says.

The thing about these insects, he adds, is that they don't even think about running. Their muscles do so instinctively, and this is one of the main traits that the group is trying to replicate. Existing robots can walk, but they can't do it as well as humans can. This is largely owed to the fact that everything is highly computerized, which means that a lot of energy and processing power are absorbed by something that comes natural to all living animals.

“If we ever develop robots that can really run over rough ground, they can't afford to use so much of their computing abilities and energy demand to accomplish it. A cockroach doesn't think much about running, it just runs. And it only slows down about 20 percent when going over blocks that are three times higher than its hips. That's just remarkable, and an indication that their stability has to do with how they are built, rather than how they react,” Schmitt adds. He also underlines that fields such as military operations, law enforcement or space exploration could be among those to benefit from robots with such advanced capabilities.

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