Stealthy Robot Mimics Disappearing Cockroaches

You know how cockroaches just seem to disappear before you can squash them?

Imagine if robots could do the same disappearing act.

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley are making that happen. By studying the cockroach, researchers discovered that one of the ways the pests can quickly slip from sight is by deftly flipping themselves under a ledge.

And the knowledge of how cockroaches do that can help scientists build better robots - ones that could more easily act as first responders or in a military setting.

"This work is a great example of the amazing maneuverability of animals, and how understanding the physical principles used by nature can inspire design of agile robots," said Ron Fearing, the UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer science who led the study's robotics group.

Robert Full, a Berkeley professor of integrative biology, said new knowledge about cockroaches definitely can help make better robots.

"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," added Full. "That's really the challenge now in robotics, to produce robots that can transition on complex surfaces and get into dangerous areas that first responders can't get into."

The university's biology and robotics departments teamed up to recreate the cockroaches' behavior in a six-legged robot equipped with Velcro strips on its back legs.

Scientists discovered that when they attached Velcro strips to the upper side and underside of a ledge, the robot -- dubbed DASH for Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod -- could do the same athletic and stealthy move.

According to Berkeley, Jean-Michel Mongeau, a graduate student in UC Berkeley's biophysics group, used a high-speed camera and found that cockroaches can deftly end up on the underside of edges by using their hind legs to grab the surface and swinging their bodies around and under the ledge.

New cockroach behavior discovered by University of California, Berkeley biologists secures the insect's reputation as one of nature's top escape artists.

Actually, Berkeley reported that the researchers found that the cockroaches don't fall over the ledge. They are able to run at full speed toward the ledge, dive off, then grabbed the edge with its claws - sometimes using only one leg - and swing like a pendulum under the ledge. And while doing all of that, they still are able to retain 75% of their running energy.

A lot of work has gone into developing robots that can act as first responders, even rescuing people during evacuation efforts.

In April, the U.S. military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced its Robotics Challenge, a high-tech contest that will award as much as $34 million in prize money in various categories, including $2 million to the winning team that can build a better robot to serve in emergency response situations.

DARPA is looking for robots that can drive vehicles, use human tools and traverse rough terrain and rubble to assist in evacuation operations.

After an earthquake and tsunami damaged nuclear power plants in Japan in the spring of 2011, the U.S. sent specialized robots to Japan to help officials there get control of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants.

The radiation-hardened robots, which could be sent into areas that would be dangerous for humans, were geared to give Japanese and U.S officials readings on the environment inside the nuclear power plants.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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