Robot Cockroaches May Be the Future of Space Exploration
No one wanted it to come to this, but researchers at John Hopkins have created palm-sized robots that mimic real-life cockroaches, down to their high-speed skittering and tiny tails. As unsettling as it sounds, these new roach-bots might be everywhere soon—including the surface of Mars and disaster areas—and their unique locomotion may create a revolution in robotics.
The researchers at John Hopkins initially experimented with live cockroaches and obstacle courses to understand how the bugs dealt with gaps and bumps. Using high-speed cameras, they discovered a few interesting pieces of information—first of all, cockroaches bump into things. According to Chen Li, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering:
"Where they live, you have all sorts of stuff around you, like dense vegetation or fallen leaves or branches or roots. Wherever they go, they run into these obstacles. We're trying to understand the principles of how they go through such a complex terrain, and we hope to then transfer those principles to advanced robots."
This is the first potential breakthrough. Rather than using sensors like LiDAR, sonar, or other systems that receive or emit signals to give a robot a picture of its surroundings, a roach-bot can potentially find a path through difficult terrain using its own locomotion, ie bumping into things. This simplistic pathfinding potentially means that less hardware can go into each robot without losing the ability to navigate an area.
One of the other major discoveries had to do with maneuverability: equipping a roach-bot with a stabilizing tail (like a real roach) allowed it to traverse much larger obstacles, while its body shape, legs, and pattern of movement allowed it to hit a wall, climb it, and then flip around and go the other way, all at high speed. For giant, bulky rovers like Curiosity, these kinds of stunts are pretty much impossible.
The combination of pathfinding, maneuverability, and their relatively small size makes these little robots useful for locating survivors of natural disasters and scouting out other planets. It doesn't change the fact that they look and move like one of the most disgusting creatures on Earth, but we have to admit that if there's one thing that would be nigh-impossible to stop, it would be a robot cockroach on a mission.