Science & Technology

This Nightmarish, Cockroach-Inspired Robot Can Scurry Up Walls

You know the joke: after a nuclear apocalypse, only cockroaches and Twinkies will survive. As creepy as many find them, cockroaches definitely have the whole survival thing figured out. That's one reason scientists are using them as inspiration for a future generation of robots.

Crash Test Buggy

Before you design a robot that behaves like a cockroach, you have to figure out how a cockroach behaves in the first place. Researchers have been studying cockroach movement for years, discovering how they can change their gait and squeeze through narrow spaces, all while tearing around at up to 3.4 miles per hour (5.5 kilometers per hour) — putting them among the world's fastest insects.

But until a team of researchers from University of California Berkeley looked into it, we weren't sure how they kept up such a breakneck speed when transitioning from scurrying across the floor to scurrying up a vertical wall. They don't appear to slow down, yet they also don't leap from one surface to the next. Instead, it just looks like they make a smooth transition — at one moment, they're horizontal, and the next, they're vertical. To find out just how they manage such a graceful maneuver, the researchers had 18 cockroaches run across a 22-inch (55 centimeter) track toward a single climbable wall. As the cockroaches ran, high-speed cameras recorded every moment of action. When the researchers ran the footage in slow-motion, they saw something weird:

With the footage slowed down, it's clear that the wall transition isn't graceful at all — it's actually pretty violent. 80 percent of the time, the cockroaches ran headfirst into the wall. But that bullish technique is incredibly effective: they were able to go from horizontal scurrying to a sheer vertical climb in just 75 milliseconds, just as fast as the few cautious bugs who slowed down and tilted their heads up before attempting the climb. Cockroaches crash quite a lot, but now we know it's more of a strategy than a mistake.

I, Roachbot

This presents an intriguing strategy for robot design, since they usually have to slow down, sense, and maneuver around obstacles, which can waste precious time. To test their theories about the cockroaches' head-ramming method, the researchers created a tiny, simple six-legged robot with no sensors or feedback mechanisms — just a mechanical wall-banging machine. Then, they had the robot attempt the same feat, letting it ram into the wall as high-speed cameras recorded the action. Here's what happened:

The key to both the real and robot cockroach's bumper-car-inspired skills is in their size. If you or I ran head-first into a wall at full speed, we certainly wouldn't be climbing anything any time soon. But the robot cockroach weighs just 16 grams, which helps keep them from hitting the wall with enough energy to cause injury. The researchers calculated that other animals — especially those with soft exoskeletons like the cockroach — could manage this collision method only if they weigh less than 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds). That's important information for engineers, who might be able to create fast, agile cockroach-bots that are lighter than this limit.

For more technology inspired by the natural world, check out "The Shark's Paintbrush: Biomimicry and How Nature Is Inspiring Innovation" by Jay Harman. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer March 6, 2018