Researchers Developing Cockroach-Inspired Robots, Cheetah-Bots

Roboticists present their bio-inspired designs -- and debate about which cockroaches are faster -- at IROS 2009.

2 min read
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When I think about robots, I don't automatically think of cockroaches. But the little creepy crawlies were featured in several presentations at yesterday's workshop on Biologically Inspired Robotics at the 2009 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, which officially begins today in St. Louis, Missouri.

Cockroaches in fact inspire designs for small walking, running, and crawling bots, which you can check out examples of at the website of the Center for Biologically Inspired Robotics Research at Case Western Reserve University. I learned more about roach anatomy and gaits than I ever thought I'd want to know.

The highlight (at least for me) was a debate between Case Western engineering professor Roger Quinn and Singapore's Nanyang Technological University professor K.H. Low about which cockroach was faster and smarter: the North American cockroach, or the Asian cockroach.

Low claimed the Asian cockroach was faster, since he could never catch one at home, while he caught them all the time during six years of study in Canada. Quinn begged to differ, and the ensuing discussion of roach biology entertained the laptop-bedecked crowd of about 50 for several minutes.

Unfortunately no live demonstrations could be had, but Quinn seemed excited about the possibility of a race.

Biologically inspired robotics is a hot topic at this conference, with one of 16 simultaneous tracks devoted to it, and several more touching on its themes. Other tracks will hit human-robot interaction, medical robots, legged robots, and underwater robots, to name just a few.

Sangbae Kim, an assistant professor at MIT and director of MIT’s Biomimetic Robotics Lab, is looking forward moving beyond cockroach-inspired design, and even past the gecko-inspired bots he worked on while at Stanford.

Kim's research at MIT is now focusing on "hyper dynamic locomotion." Translation? Cheetah-bot.

"You see so many robots everywhere," Kim says, "especially at conferences like these. But none of the robots can follow me, at walking speed, over rough terrain, or up stairs."

Kim thinks that kind of dynamic locomotion is "really limited still," and the robots that can crawl over rough terrain are small and often go slow. So he's aiming for a bigger, legged robot that could run fast, like a cheetah.

"Not necessarily over rough terrain," he says, "but over flat and also rough" spaces. And not necessarily even a cheetah, he says, not wanting to limit his goals. Squirrels, too, have highly dynamic behavior that allows them both to run fast and to climb, actions that can only be accomplished by two very different kinds of bots so far.

It's a good reminder that robots still can't do nearly the variety of tasks that humans and animals can. But presenters and exhibitors at this conference will set out to prove how much their robots can do.

Above is one of the videos presented today featuring a cockroach-like critter bot.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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