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Cockroach movement used to design robots

Often deemed repulsive and unwanted, cockroaches are experiencing a second life in labs as tools to help design robots that can scale treacherous terrain.

Places like a landscape after an enormous explosion or the surface of a foreign, alien planet are the types of environments that humans might experience difficulty traversing — but not cockroaches. So the bugs and their ability to scurry around virtually any surface have become the inspiration and study subjects at a Johns Hopkins University lab tasked with creating nimble bots for exploration, according to two studies published in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

“Where they (cockroaches) live, you have all sorts of stuff around you, like dense vegetation or fallen leaves or branches or roots,” the study’s senior author, Chen Li, said. “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.”

The researchers created obstacles for the roaches to maneuver to better understand how they’re able to navigate difficult landscapes with challenging hindrances thrown in their way. The bugs found ways over large “bumps” and “gaps” by contorting their heads, torsos and legs until the given hurdle was overcome. High-speed cameras captured their individual movements to be slowed down later by the researchers and utilized in their robotic designs.

“We are just beginning to understand how these critters move through a cluttered 3-D terrain where you have obstacles that are larger than or comparable to the animal or robot’s size,” Li said. “But as soon as I started working in the lab, I learned that it’s actually very easy to work with them, and they’re actually a very nice, fantastic model organism… They’re very easy to handle and motivate to run and very easy to care for. So, they’re currently one of the main species in our lab, serving as a model system.”

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