Scientists at the University of Michigan believe cockroaches could inspire better stability in robot designs.
Shai Revzen, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, constructed a track for cockroaches with his colleagues, consisting of a bridge leading to a cart on wheels the size of a placemat. This work was done while Revzen was a studnet at Berkeley.
In 41 separate trials, the team sent 15 cockroaches running across the bridge and onto the cart.
Now before you imagine your younger brother and his friends playing with cockroaches for kicks, understand that Revzen’s cockroach experiment had an important purpose.
Several years ago, Revzen developed a methodology called kinematic phase analysis. The method uses a high-speed camera to continuously photograph the position of the cockroach’s feet and the ends of its body as it moves.
Then, by lining up the photos, Revzen can approximate the cockroach’s gait position at any given time.
The team sent the cockroaches running across the bridge and onto the wheeled cart. When the roaches hit the cart, the scientists released the magnets helping to hold the cart in place, sending it hurtling to the side.
As Revzen said, the force was the equivalent of a jogger being hit with a flying tackle by a sumo wrestler.
Revzen and the team learned that cockroaches stabilized themselves without neurological assistance. They used the momentum in their legs and their muscles to balance because nervous system signals took a while to respond.
As they stabilized, they only adjusted their gait at whole-step intervals. They didn’t make mid-gait adjustments.
Revzen proposes that robot designers could incorporate a mechanical suspension for robot feet as opposed to one that relies on electrical feedback. "The animals obviously have much better mechanical designs than anything we know how to build. But if we could learn how they do it, we might be able to reproduce it,” he said.
In addition, kinematic phase analysis could also analyze the human gait. Revzen suggests understanding the human gait better could help to prevent falls in the elderly.
The team published their findings in the online edition of Biological Cybernetics. The article will appear in the print edition next month.
Edited by Rich Steeves