Cockroaches are the bane of many a household, with an uncanny ability to terrorize, startle, annoy, and disgust by their mere presence alone, be it in a cupboard, on a wall, or whilst innocently scampering across the floor. However, it's a unique ability of the cockroach though that has inspired scientists in the development of new robot technology. And that ability was discovered quite by accident.
While running tests on the roaches' athleticism, including their ability to leap ledges, they were startled to find the roaches instead decided to forego the leap of faith, and instead disappear entirely. Those pesky roaches!
Yet while their disappearing act seems to be something borne from watching too many magic acts while clinging to the walls of a dilapidated old theater, it's actually rooted very firmly in science. What the roaches do when they reach the edge of a ledge is latch onto it with the claws of their back legs, and then swing their body over the edge, like a pendulum, all without slowing down. The end result being that they end up clinging to the underside of the ledge, and those watching from the other side are left bewildered.
The UC Berkeley scientists who discovered this unusual capability instantly saw the potential for it to be adapted for use by robots. Their early prototype is called DASH (Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod). Using Velcro hooks attached to DASH's back legs, and Velcro loops on the edge and underside of a ledge, they were able to get DASH to mimic the cockroaches' move, and swing itself gracefully over the side of the ledge, and underneath it.
UC Berkeley researcher Robert Full sees the potential for robots to be more agile with the help of such technology, which could lead to them being deployed into areas that would otherwise be impossible for a robot to navigate, such as piles of rubble in search of survivors.
"Ultimately, if we want search-and-rescue robots to assist first responders in the rubble left after an earthquake, tornado or explosion...we must build far more agile robots with animal-like maneuverability," Full said.
While there still is a lot of work to be done, including swapping out the Velcro with artificial claws that will be capable of grabbing onto and clinging to a variety of surfaces and surface conditions, it's a promising start; and one inspired by that most reviled of creatures, the cockroach.