Creepy crawlers are creepy for a reason. But robot engineers also insist that cockroach inspired robots have great value for search and rescue missions due to the shape of the insect’s round shell, which allows it to effortlessly navigate through dense clutter.
Cockroaches are known for being resilient creatures, with some saying that they can survive the atomic bomb and others saying that they can survive decapitation.
Maybe it’s a joke, maybe it’s not, but it’s no wonder then that experts at the University of California (Berkeley) are developing mechanical cockroaches that can move through hostile environments and tight spaces.
On top of being used for search and rescue missions, they are also being designed to aid with military reconnaissance, as well as farming.
Chen Li, lead researcher and physicist over at the University of California, informs that most intelligent robots use sensors that map out an environment and rely on heavy computation in order to come up with a safe route that allows them to avoid obstacles.
He stress that this particular approach has been successful in the past, one achievement worth mentioning being Google’s self-driving cars, however he also shares that it has its limitations:
“First, when the terrain becomes densely cluttered, a clear path cannot be planned because obstacles are just too close to each other. Second, this approach requires sophisticated sensors and computers, which are often too large or heavy for small robots to carry around”.
The approach Li and his team took was a little different. They decided that developing a robot that can go straight through obstacles could come in handy.
They started work on the project by filming and studying the behavior that 2 inch (4.9 centimeter) long cockroaches adopt while in cluttered spaces. They created an artificial environment that imitated the insects’ natural habitat, tropical rainforests that make the creatures constantly go through obstacles such as grass, leaves, mushrooms, tree trunks and shrubs inn order to move from one place to the other.
The researchers noticed that the creepy crawlers typically took about three (3) seconds to finish an obstacle course. Sometimes the roaches pushed through an obstacle, and sometimes they climber over an obstacle, but roughly half the time they managed to slip right passed obstacles thanks to their shells.
These round shells tilt their bodies sideways as their legs push on an obstacle, effortlessly allowing them to slip through small gaps.
The robot engineers than took their work a step further by designing three (3) artificial shells that they fitted on the life cockroaches. One was oval and similar to the creature’s body, one was a flat oval, and one was a flat rectangle. They glued them onto insects and noticed that the ones that made them less round, also caused them to have trouble performing one of the maneuvers they typically used in order to get passed an obstacle.
The team them built 4 inch (10 centimeter) long robotic roach dubbed VelociRoACH and saw the same results. When they gave it a rectangular shell, the machine only finished the obstacle course 19 percent (19%) of the time. But when it was given a shell that imitated the insect’s body, VelociRoACH finished the obstacle course 93 percent (93%) of the time.
The study proves how important body shape is for animals and how choosing the right one can help researchers build better robots.
Image Source: theverge.com