Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

August 8, 2012

If robots could only move like a cockroach


CNHI

— I was minding my own business and working in my kitchen the other day. Suddenly I heard a rustle coming from the plastic lining of the garbage pail under the sink. Puzzled, I looked into the cupboard. In a blur, a mouse dashed up and out of the pail and disappeared down a hole in the wood next to the water pipes.

I sighed. I knew that the mouse sighting was the first event in what proved to be a two-week effort to trap the several mice that had moved in with us.

When I was young I lived for a year in a tenement in Seattle that had cockroaches. They moved even faster than the speediest mouse can do. Only a split second passed between turning on the lights in the kitchen in the evening and seeing the roaches skedaddle off the floor and counters.

I was reminded of the roaches in my old kitchen when I read about some research into fast-moving animals that’s been on-going at UC Berkeley. Professor Robert Full and others have been studying speed and maneuverability in animals. Fifteen years ago they discovered that when cockroaches want to really make tracks and sprint away from trouble, they stand up on their hind legs and run on just two feet.

Jean-Michel Mongeau of UC Berkeley and his colleagues have now documented another behavior that helps roaches escape trouble. The insects can run for a ledge, grab it with their hind legs, and swing a full 180 underneath. This puts the roaches upside down but safe under the overhang.

The forces on the insect are significant, about 3 to 5 times the normal force of gravity. It’s all a pretty neat trick, one not really visible to the naked eye but that became evident when researchers slowed down the action they captured on a high-speed camera.

The story doesn’t end with the study of insects. Full’s research group has worked with some electrical engineers at Berkeley who are developing a six-legged robot with Velcro on its feet that they call DASH (for Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod). The DASH robot is inspired by the humble cockroach.

Engineers have long labored to make more maneuverable robots. Now the hope at Berkeley is to make a machine that’s as versatile as the cockroach.

“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,” Full said to the press. “That’s really the challenge now in robotics, to produce robots that can transition on complex surfaces.”

The effort is not just academic. If we had intelligent and maneuverable robots, they could take on tasks too risky or difficult for us. For example, they could be sent into collapsed buildings or other areas too dangerous or difficult for first responders.

I wish the researchers well, and I’m glad they find inspiration for good work in animals like cockroaches. I’m also glad my kitchen is – at least for now – free of both scurrying insects and dashing mice.

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Dr. E. Kirsten Peters was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.