at UC Berkeley are working on robots of various
sizes that can work together. The bigger robot
moves slower than the smaller VelociRoach, but is
equipped with more features like a camera and GPS.
Calif. — At a University of California, Berkeley
laboratory, engineers are building cockroach-like robots
with a noble purpose — search and rescue.
than the palm of a hand and weighing an ounce, the
robots are fast, nimble, and equipped with microphones
and thermostats to detect sound and heat.
there’s a warehouse that’s collapsed," said
Ronald Fearing, the director of UC Berkeley’s
Biomimetic Millisystems Lab, which developed the
VelociRoach robot. "You can send in hundreds of
these robots, and if there’s an opening, they can get
through or get close to certain areas to notify rescuers
they’ve found a survivor."
research is also underway at Harvard University’s Wyss
Institute and Festo’s research and development
facilities in Europe.
advances in mobile technology, slightly bigger insect
robots are being equipped with smartphone-like features:
cameras, gyroscopes and various sensors enabling them to
search and map an area. As the technology improves, the
insect robots will get smaller and smarter,
communicating with one another through algorithms that
might, for instance, allow them to fly together in a
engineers working on them find inspiration in common
of the common house fly," said Tom Vaneck, who
specializes in disruptive technologies at Physical
Sciences Inc., a technology research and development
firm in California’s Bay Area. "When you see a
house fly hit a window … it bounces off and flies
lab has developed robots that can fly through cluttered
environments like forests, collapsed buildings and
at the Wyss Institute, Robert Wood is working on
bee-size robots that can be deployed for
search-and-rescue operations, hazardous environment
exploration and even pollination.
insects could transform the hunt for survivors, said
biologist Robert Full, who researches biomechanics and
physiology at UC Berkeley.
if you look at something like the earthquake in Nepal, I’m
positive that relatively inexpensive robots would be
able to penetrate the rubble quickly and give us some
sense of where individuals are trapped, and also give us
a hint of where it’s structurally safe to move
material to get to the survivors," he said.
idea of looking to insects for robotic inspiration isn’t
new. Some of the earliest insect-related robots,
including the Sutherland Six-Legged Hydraulic Walker
from 1983, resembled a cartoonish bug crossed with a
lawn mower, and were big enough for a grown human to
ride. Many robots were built to better understand
insects themselves. In recent years though, engineers
have made significant breakthroughs in adapting some of
nature’s best designs for robotics.
the case of the VelociRoach, engineers have added little
spines to its legs — much like the spines on a
cockroach’s legs — to give it better traction on
different surfaces. And having studied the movement of
cockroaches, engineers have figured out that when the
critter is navigating rough terrain like tall grass, its
body shape allows it to automatically roll on its side
and run sideways. Typical boxy robots would often get
caught in grass. When fitted in an oval cockroach-like
shell, the robots were able to successfully traverse the
so great about nature is, what we’re trying to do with
robotics is solve a lot of really hard problems like how
to get around, how to walk on difficult terrain, and
nature has already solved it," said Nick Kohut,
chief executive of Dash Robotics, which makes small
insect-like robots people can put together and program
themselves. "It’s sort of a cheat sheet where
nature did it this way, so maybe we could do it that
cheat sheet doesn’t come without challenges, though.
Insects have, after all, enjoyed the benefit of
evolution, and Vaneck describes nature as having an
"infinite budget" when it comes to redesigning
organisms until they work. Engineers don’t have that
benefit. Although they can see what insect behaviors
they want to incorporate into their robots, actually
getting the robots to pull off those behaviors is tough.
lot of what’s going on now is the desire to have
swarming behavior," Vaneck said. "So getting a
large number of robots to go into an area, map it,
search for things, identify gas leaks and find
survivors. It’s very much like what we see in swarm
behavior in a hive of insects like bees and wasps."
UC Berkeley, Fearing believes the lab might be a few
years away from robots that can work together with
little human intervention, and engineers around the
world continue to struggle with material constraints
like robot battery life, weight and robustness.
be only a matter of time before engineers, scientists
and biologists are able to overcome those challenges,
Vaneck said. In the meantime, they’re happy to keep
looking to nature for answers.
like standing on the shoulders of giants," he said.