ADMIRATION isn’t exactly the first thing one would feel for a cockroach. A more accurate feeling would probably be revulsion.
However, it’s exactly for their unique characteristics — their ability to survive in extreme conditions and their streamlined bodies — that researchers are getting all excited.
Actually, the cockroach is just one of the many creatures that researchers are taking inspiration from to solve our human problems.
Velcro, for instance, is inspired by the hook-like structures on burr fruits while the bulletproof vest gets its inspiration from ultra-strong spider silk.
Taking a leaf out of nature’s book, scientists have developed technologies that imitate some of life’s unique innovations.
This is precisely the aim of biomimetics — a cross-disciplinary field from engineering, biology and chemistry. It applies our observations of animals and attempts to mimic their motions over land, air and underwater to propel revolutionary technologies.
The Biomimetic Millisystems Lab of the University of Berkeley, California (UC Berkeley) led by Ronald Fearing, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, is harnessing the features of small animals to create next-gen robots.
From building jumping robots to specially-constructed robots that can avoid obstacles, this group of intrepid roboticists take their inspiration from bioinspired principles.
Incredible leap in designs
The animal kingdom is never short of fascinating species and their unique methods of movement for bioinspired roboticists to study.
The functions of their bodily parts and varied movements, which include climbing, jumping as well as moving on terrestrial and arboreal surfaces present a unique opportunity for roboticists to reproduce for specific designs or tasks for their robots.
One of the animals inspiring the UC Berkeley team of roboticists is the galago or bushbaby — a small African primate with remarkable jumping abilities.
This animal can leap to extraordinary heights — jumping five times in just four seconds to gain a combined height of 8.5 metres!
This is impressive for a creature that’s a little bigger than a rat. In mid-flight, it keeps its arms and legs close to the body which are then spread out at the last second to grab the branch.
This nocturnal primate also has a special ability to store energy within its tendons so it can jump to heights not achievable by its muscles alone.
The galagos are categorised as saltatorial animals (animals that move by jumping). Their powerful propulsion and flexibility of motions in their environment paved the design for UC Berkeley’s Salto.
Salto and its new and upgraded Salto-IP is a monopedal robot that explores extreme jumping movements.
Weighing only 98g and with an active leg length of 14.4cm, the Salto-IP has the highest robotic vertical jumping agility of any battery-powered robot ever recorded — a whopping 1.83 m per second — just short of the vertical jumping agility of the galago at 2.24 m per second.
Justin Yim, a third-year PhD student working on the Salto-IP (Salto was developed by a UC Berkeley student, Duncan Haldane), explains that the robot can perform multiple leaps and spring off a wall.
“Salto-1P has a maximum jump of 1.25m. They’re able to have repeated hops over 1m and can jump over 2m horizontally,” he explains, as he places the robot on the floor for a demonstration.
Salto’s controls are in the process of being enhanced to enable it to do repeated high jumps as well as to better navigate through obstacles on complex terrain.
Small animals, large solutions
This mobility around human-scale environments and on various surfaces is a key research of the Biomimetic Millisystems Lab through another small robot.
The VelociROACH is a 30g, 10cm-long hexapedal (six-pedalled) robot inspired by the (revolting) American cockroach.
This common cockroach may make anyone’s skin crawl but as it turns out, the household pest is the perfect model for miniature legged robots.
The creature’s streamlined body and high-speed gaits are replicated in the robot, enabling it to move adeptly on cluttered environments.
The VelociROACH has a protective plastic shell with carbon fibre tail and is one of the fastest running robots relative to scale.
From wood to loose rocks, the VelociROACH is useful for navigation and manipulation through mobile robot contact sensing.
Larger robots require sensors and computers for mapping out a safe path. This robot uses a low-cost, lightweight tactile sensor using a light-emitting mechanism to measure the six-axis movement of a shell attached to the robot with springs.
Remarkably, the VelociRoACH is actually faster than a real roach (which can achieve 1.5 m/s).
The key to its speed are its six springy C-shaped legs, which spin around rapidly, striking the ground up to 15 times per second to propel it forward.
According to Fearing, heavy designs for robots are not feasible for their lab’s applications.
“Our team develops small-scale robots that are low-cost and light-weight, with masses below 100g and are disposable. We build things and test them out rapidly.”
The VelociROACH, which can be reproduced for a mere US$50 (RM210), is a miniature robot that will be able to get into dangerous areas where emergency responders can’t get into. After all, reconnaissance or search and rescue missions will be required to carry out tasks on challenging terrain.
It is, therefore, the hope of the Biomimetic Millisystems Lab that their small, bioinspired robots will one day help save lives.
“There’s still a lot that we can study from nature, especially on the incredible maneuvrability of animals,” notes Fearing.
“It will be a unique challenge to develop robots that are able to imitate multiple behavioural features such as both climbing and jumping. There’s a long list of intriguing animals we could be inspired by. Personally, I am fascinated by squirrels and their arboreal locomotion.”
Whether it’s to figure out how to save energy in the trajectory of their robots or to save lives, the field of biomimetics will continue to glean from nature in order to provide solutions to complex human problems.
The visit to the Biomimetics Millisystems Lab at UC Berkeley, California was part of the Robotics Lab Tour during the World Conference of Science Journalists 2017. The writer was one of the 72 Professional Fellows selected from 48 countries and represented Malaysia.