Streamlined cockroaches inspire highly maneuverable robots

Outfitting a robot with a rounded shell helps it scoot through clutter as easily as a cockroach, UC Berkeley researchers have found.

Cockroaches with terradynamic streamlining inspire robot design. (Chen Li video.)

Chen Li, a Miller Postdoctoral Fellow, studied the maneuvering ability of cockroaches with rounded shells and saw that their simple streamlined shape allowed them to easily roll and slip through gaps in a clutter of objects, such as grass and leaves on a forest floor.

He then added shells of various types to a cockroach-like robot and found that a similarly rounded, oval carapace allowed the robot to slip through gaps, while typical box-like robots are often stopped dead in their tracks.

“The majority of robotics studies have been solving the problem of obstacles by avoiding them, which largely depends on using sensors to map out the environment and algorithms that plan a path to go around obstacles,” Li said. “However, when the terrain becomes densely cluttered, especially as gaps between obstacles become comparable or even smaller than robot size, this approach starts to run into problems as a clear path cannot be mapped.”

The robot may inspire the design of future terrestrial robots to use in a wide variety of scenarios, from monitoring the environment to search and rescue operations.

The first results of the robot’s performance were published this week in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics. Li’s co-authors are Robert Full, professor of integrative biology and director of UC Berkeley’s PolyPedal Laboratory; Ron Fearing, professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences; and Andrew Pullin, Duncan Haldane and Han Lam.

For more on the experiments, link to the journal’s press release.