Biomimetics: What a robot shaped like a cockroach can do

Robotics engineers found a way to help robots navigate through very tight spaces by attaching a shell that mimics the shape of one of nature's most resilient but most reviled creatures: the cockroach.

Many animals have evolved complex systems to avoid or overcome obstacles, and robotics researchers have tried to emulate those systems in robots. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, were surprised to find that the cockroach can get through difficult terrain using a simple system involving the shape of its body. (Tweet This)

"The majority of robots deal with obstacles by avoiding them—often using sensors to map out the environment and heavy computation to plan a safe path to go around obstacles," said lead researcher Chen Li, in an email to CNBC. "This approach has been very successful (for example, Google's self-driving car). However, it does have limitations. First, when the terrain becomes densely cluttered, a clear path cannot be planned because obstacles are just too close to each other."

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But cockroaches thrive in tight, narrow spaces, even in places where surfaces are touching both sides of their bodies, according to the UC Davis Integrated Pest Management program. So the scientists studied the way cockroaches more through their environments and developed a simple, low-cost design that enables robots to move with similar agility.

The team began its research by studying cockroach behavior and filming the insects as they maneuvered through dense, thicket-like obstacles. They observed that the rounded shape of the insect's body acted as a kind of guide-rail that tilted its body sideways when it touched an object, allowing it to quickly slide through narrow openings, without expending much extra energy.

They then made a rounded, ellipsoidal shell that imitates the natural body shape of the cockroach and attached it to the top of a small robot. They found the machine was able to roll onto its side and slide past obstacles in small spaces, just as cockroaches do. The team's robot had no obstacle-sensing system on-board, so the researchers know the shell alone allowed the robots to move more freely.

Li said the design could be useful for designing robots for search-and-rescue missions or precision agriculture, since it could let robots move through thick vegetation or rubble without the need for extra sensors or complex navigational programs.

The group published its findings in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics on Tuesday.