By studying cockroach locomotion, scientists learn how to build better, more mobile robots
When they turn up in pantries or restaurant kitchens, cockroaches are commonly despised as ugly, unhealthy pests. But in the name of science, Johns Hopkins researchers have put these unwanted bugs to work.
In a crowded, windowless lab, scholars and students are coaxing the insects to share some crucial locomotion tips that could help future robotic vehicles traverse treacherous terrain. In the aftermath of an earthquake or on the unexplored, alien surface of another planet, for example, a cockroach could persist where humans hesitate to go.
For missions like these, the Johns Hopkins researchers want to build robots that behave more like cockroaches. The team’s early findings are the subject of two related research papers [published this month in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics]
Sean W. Gart, a postdoctoral fellow who puts the roaches through their paces, was the lead author of the two papers. The senior author of both papers was Chen Li, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering who directs the Terradynamics Lab. It focuses on movement science at the interface of biology, robotics, and physics.
Inside the lab, cockroaches scurry along tracks featuring two types of obstacles: large “bumps” and equally large “gaps.” These mimic the holes and barriers the roaches—a Central American species with bodies about two inches long—might encounter in their rugged natural habitat, typically a rainforest region cluttered with vegetation. The bugs contort their heads, torsos, and legs until they find a way to get themselves over or across the obstacles in order to remain on course.
High-speed cameras capture the roaches’ body and leg motions. The videos can later be slowed down to help the researchers learn the precise tactics that small robots might use to surmount the same types of obstacles.
“Where they live, you have all sorts of stuff around you, like dense vegetation or fallen leaves or branches or roots,” Li says. “Wherever they go, they run into these obstacles. We’re trying to understand the principles of how they go through such a complex terrain, and we hope to then transfer those principles to advanced robots.”