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02/27/2013

Cockroach gait could help design a better robot

Cockroach

New research into how cockroaches scuttle could help design a better robot.

Sent lurching sideways, specialized cameras discovered that the bugs first regained their footing using spring-like mechanical features of their legs and momentum. Their nervous system -- the brain -- only kicked in after a couple of steps.

That could be useful information for robot designers, who are trying to build computer "brains" smart enough to help robots navigate rocky territory and pick themselves up when they fall (among other things).

The cockroach findings suggest that designers could turn to nature and try to build legs that help when robots stumble without relying on immediate feedback from their "brains."

"The animals obviously have much better mechanical designs than anything we know how to build. But if we could learn how they do it, we might be able to reproduce it," said lead author Shai Revzen in a press release put out by the University of Michigan, where he is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Other researchers who contributed to the study have backgrounds in evolutionary biology and biomechanics.

The authors determined how cockroach gait works by sending 15 of the animals scuttling down a small bridge onto a cart that suddenly lurched to the side. Using high-speed cameras, the researchers could determine that the bugs' gait changed when their nervous system kicked in -- something they knew from separate experiments in which electrodes were implanted in the legs of seven cockroaches. 

The study will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Biological Cybernetics.

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.

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