Micro-robot flip maneuver inspired by fleeing cockroaches

By Chelsea Whyte on June 7, 2012 3:06 PM EDT

DASH bot
A cockroach, a Gecko and a microbot on a ledge (not to scale). (Photo: PolyPEDAL Lab, UC Berkeley)

A cunning trick employed by geckos and cockroaches has inspired a robot that can run full-speed toward the edge of a ledge and swing around to the underside to continue running.

As with many discoveries, this one happened quite by accident while a team of researchers were studying animal movement using cockroaches in the lab. Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley were taping cockroaches with high-speed video cameras to test how they would cross gaps while running at high speeds, when they happened to catch them performing a disappearing act.

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"We were surprised to find the insect gone," said biologist Robert Full. "After searching, we discovered it upside-down under the ledge," Full said. "After close inspection of the video, we saw that the cockroach was using its legs as grappling hooks by engaging its claws at the tip of the ledge."

This dangling move, which propels the insect pendulum-like off the edge of a ledge and back around to the underside, has also been observed in geckos in the lab that use their hooked toenails to swing around. The team confirmed their findings with researchers studying geckos in the wild of Singapore, who said the lizards used this "rapid inversion" technique to escape predators.

Inspired by these wily creatures, the team designed a six-legged robot capable of performing this feat. DASH - Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod - is a microbot that weighs in at just 16 grams and has Velcro hooks on its back legs which allow it to swing around in a move that mimics the roaches.

"The flip demonstrates a principle of how we might make small robots more agile and maneuverable," Full said, according to the Huffington Post. "Ultimately, if we want search-and-rescue robots to assist first responders in the rubble left after an earthquake, tornado or explosion, or have greater capability to more rapidly detect chemical, biological or nuclear hazards, we must build far more agile robots with animal-like maneuverability."

DASH can't yet continue running on the upside down surface once it carries out the acrobatics, but sticky-footed robots have been shown to climb walls, and Full said their robot may be able to do so in the future

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