Running Robots  (Source: OSU)
Roaches may lead to better robots

Insects like roaches are a nuisance to most of us and we do all we can to eliminate them from our environment. Scientists look at roaches with a different eye – some see the insects as engineering marvels and are striving to make robots that are able to move more like roaches.

Researchers at Oregon State University are looking to roaches for what they call "bioinspiration" to build the world's first legged robot that can run effortlessly over rough terrain. The scientists are studying how the bugs are able to use their legs to manage and expend energy and why those capabilities are so important for running stability.

OSU assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering John Schmitt said, "Humans can run, but frankly our capabilities are nothing compared to what insects and some other animals can do. Cockroaches are incredible. They can run fast, turn on a dime, move easily over rough terrain, and react to perturbations faster than a nerve impulse can travel."

The problem is that robots being built today can walk, but the researchers say that the robots absorb far too much energy and computing power to be particularly useful. Roaches on the other hand can run without really having to even think about what they are doing. The bugs are able to run using muscle action that is instinctual and doesn't require reflex control.

Schmitt said, "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. 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."

The roach isn't the only living creature that the researchers are studying. They are also looking at how the guinea hen can change the length and angle of its legs to adjust automatically to an unexpected ground surface change. The hen can react to an unexpected surface change of as much as 40%. The researchers say that is the human equivalent of stepping in a 16-inch deep hole running at full speed and not missing a beat.

The researchers have developed a computer model that is able to react to changes in ground surface almost as fast as the guinea hen. The ultimate goal of the research is to construct robots that are capable of running over uneven terrain without using significant computing power. Eventually the research may lead to military robots that are more efficient and robots that can be used for other tasks like walking a catwalk.

"I'd be pissed too, but you didn't have to go all Minority Report on his ass!" -- Jon Stewart on police raiding Gizmodo editor Jason Chen's home
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