High-Speed Robots Based On Cockroaches: How Roach's Antennae Hairs Help Scientists Create Quicker Bots

By Gabrielle Jonas on December 4, 2013 5:58 PM EST

A research cockroach walks upside down
An American cockroach walks under a ledge at a Berkeley research laboratory. The antennas stick to impediments and curl back to bump the bug backwards out of harm's way. (Photo: Jean-Michel Mongeau and Paulin)

Biologists are continuing their experiments on roaches to see how their antennae help them avoid obstacles so that mechanical engineers can incorporate the findings into designs for quicker and more responsive robots. Jean-Michel Mongeau, a biologist from the University of California, Berkeley, who published the findings in The Journal of Experimental Biology on Wednesday, began by placing blinded cockroaches into an arena and prodding them in the direction of a wall. The cockroaches' antennas often projected straight out in front of them as they tracked a smooth acrylic wall, but bent backward when tracking a rougher wooden wall. The slight bending in the tip of the antenna pushed the cockroaches further away from the wall, helping to prevent them from crashing into it.

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Mongeau wanted to prove that the mechanism behind the antenna's ability to change shape according to stimuli was tiny tactile hairs on the antenna. He surmised that the hairs can stick to a rough surface, and, along with the roach's forward motion, could cause the antenna to flip backwards. So, using a tiny forceps, Mongeau attempted to pluck the hairs on the roaches' antenna, but added, "That turned out to be impossible because these hairs are very robust and they're embedded within the exoskeleton." After going through several rounds of attempting to pluck out the hairs, Mongeau decided to laser out the hairs at the tip. Without their hairs, the antennae rarely bent backwards, even when the roaches dragged their antenna along a wall. 

Mechanical engineers N.J. Cowan, who's been working on the relationship between roaches and robots for more than seven years, and Alican Demir, also of Johns Hopkins, then used the findings to create an artificial antenna for a robot. By creating artificial cockroach hairs, the engineers were able to get the robotic antenna to bend the same way a roach's does. Even a slight orientation of the hairs could alter the way the robot's antenna respond to stimuli. They hope their experiments might aid in the manufacture of high-speed robots.

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