Roboroaches and ants with GPS

Engi­neers are look­ing to in­sects for design in­spi­ra­tion.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Tracey Lien

At a UC Berke­ley lab­o­ra­tory, engi­neers are build­ing cock­roach-like ro­bots with a noble pur­pose— search and res­cue.

Smaller 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.

“Imag­ine 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.”

Robo-bug re­search is also un­der­way at Har­vard Univer­sity’s Wyss In­sti­tute and Festo’s re­search and de­vel­op­ment fa­cil­i­ties in Europe.

With 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 ma­pan 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 swarm.

The engi­neers work­ing on them find in­spi­ra­tion in com­mon pests.

“Think of the com­mon house fly,” said Tom Vaneck, who spe­cial­izes in dis­rup­tive tech­nolo­gies at Phys­i­cal Sciences Inc., a tech­nol­ogy re­search and de­vel­op­ment firm in Pleasan­ton, Calif. “When you see a house fly hit a win­dow ... it bounces off and flies away.”

Vaneck’s lab has de­vel­oped ro­bots that can fly through clut­tered en­vi­ron­ments like forests, col­lapsed build­ings and mines.

Over at the Wyss In­sti­tute, Robert Wood is work­ing on bee-size ro­bots that can be de­ployed for searc­hand-res­cue op­er­a­tions, haz­ardous en­vi­ron­ment ex­plo­ration and even pol­li­na­tion.

Ro­botic in­sects could trans­form the hunt for sur­vivors, said bi­ol­o­gist Robert Full, who re­searches biome­chan­ics and phys­i­ol­ogy at UC Berke­ley.

“So 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.

The idea of look­ing to in­sects for ro­botic in­spi­ra­tion isn’t new. Some of the ear­li­est in­sect-re­lated ro­bots, in­clud­ing the Sutherland SixLegged 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.

In 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 ter­rain.

“What’s 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 peo­ple­can put to­gether and pro­gram them­selves. “It’s sort of a cheat sheet where na­ture did it this way, so maybe we could do it that­way.”

The 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.

“A 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 leak sand find sur­vivors. It’s very much like what we see in swarm be­hav­ior in a hive of in­sects like bees and wasps.”

At 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.

It’ll 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. “It’s like stand­ing on the shoul­ders of gi­ants,” he said. With six legs.

‘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.’ —Nick Ko­hut, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Dash Ro­bot­ics

Tracey Lien

ENGI­NEERS at UC Berke­ley are work­ing on ro­bots of var­i­ous sizes that can work to­gether. The big­ger ro­bot is slower than the smaller Ve­lociRoach but is equipped with more fea­tures such as a cam­era and GPS.

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