Cockroaches offer inspiration for running robots

Dec 28, 2009
Researchers at Oregon State University are using studies of guinea hens and other animals such as cockroaches to learn more about the mechanics of their running ability, with the goal of developing robots that can run easily over rough terrain.

The sight of a cockroach scurrying for cover may be nauseating, but the insect is also a biological and engineering marvel, and is providing researchers at Oregon State University with what they call "bioinspiration" in a quest to build the world's first legged robot that is capable of running effortlessly over rough terrain.

If the engineers succeed, they may owe their success to what's being learned from these insects and other animals, such as the guinea hen, that have their own remarkable abilities.

The latest findings - just published in the professional journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics - outline how animals use their legs to manage energy storage and expenditure, and why this is so important for running stability. The work is being supported by the National Science Foundation.

"Humans can run, but frankly our capabilities are nothing compared to what insects and some other animals can do," said John Schmitt, an assistant professor in the School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at OSU. "Cockroaches are incredible. They can run fast, turn on a dime, move easily over rough terrain, and react to perturbations faster than a can travel."

Within certain limitations, Schmitt said, cockroaches don't even have to think about running - they just do it, with muscle action that is instinctive and doesn't require reflex control. That, in fact, is part of what the engineers are trying to achieve. Right now some robots have been built that can walk, but none of them can run as well as their animal counterparts. Even walking robots absorb far too much energy and computing power to be very useful.

"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," Schmitt said. "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."

If successful, Schmitt said, running robots could serve valuable roles in difficult jobs, such as military operations, law enforcement or space exploration. Related technology might also be applied to improve the function of prosthetic limbs for amputees, or serve other needs.

The OSU researchers are trying to identify some of the basic biological and mechanical principles that allow certain animals to run so well and effortlessly. A guinea hen, for instance, can change the length and angle of its spring-like legs to almost automatically adjust to an unexpected change in a ground surface as much as 40 percent of its hip height. That would be like a human running at full speed, stepping into a 16-inch-deep hole and never missing a beat.

Researchers are getting closer to their goal.

In a computer model, they've created a concept that would allow a running to recover from a change in ground surface almost as well as a guinea hen. They are studying how the interplay of concepts such as and expenditure, sensor and feedback requirements, and leg angles can produce recovery from such perturbations. Ultimately, a team of OSU engineers hopes to use knowledge such as this to actually build robots that can efficiently run over rough terrain without using significant .

And some day, a robot - instead of a human - might be used to run into a dangerous area, check things out and report back for further instructions.

Explore further: New algorithm enables MIT cheetah robot to run and jump, untethered, across grass

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Study: Long legs are more efficient

Mar 12, 2007

Scientists have known for years that the energy cost of walking and running is related primarily to the work done by muscles to lift and move the limbs. But how much energy does it actually take to get around? Does having ...

From nature, robots

Sep 25, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- To a robot designer like Sangbae Kim, the animal kingdom is full of inspiration. "I always look at animals and ask why they are the way they are," says Kim, an assistant professor of mechanical ...

Recommended for you

Will tomorrow's robots move like snakes?

8 hours ago

Over the last few years, researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) have developed biologically inspired robots designed to fly like falcons, perch like pigeons, and swim ...

Robot Boris learning to load a dishwasher (w/ Video)

Sep 12, 2014

Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. have set themselves an ambitious goal: programming a robot in such a way as to allow it to collect dishes, cutlery, etc. from a dinner table, and put ...

Deep-sea diver hand offers freedom and feedback

Sep 12, 2014

Bodyskins and goggles are hardly the solution for divers who need to reach extreme depths. The Atmospheric Dive Suit (ADS) gives them the protection they need. Recently, The Economist detailed a technology ...

User comments : 0