Run robot! Like a cockroach

Scientists, or more specifically institutions that employ scientists, compete for attention. Attention can translate into money, prestige, or…more attention. All considered good things by institutional PR folk. So the PR folk crank out announcements and other ‘informational material.’ Hey, when science or research technology can get some attention, who’s to complain? Smile, maybe. Like a recent release from Oregon State University, College of Engineering (USA) – “Cockroaches Offer Inspiration for Running Robots.”

First off, this is a ‘concept.’ Nobody has built a robot that runs like a cockroach. The closest they’ve come, mentioned in this PR release, is a computer model. There’s nothing inherently wrong about announcing a concept. It really helps if the concept is novel, of course. A robot running like a cockroach, at least among robotics engineers, isn’t novel. It might not even be that novel for the general scientific community. That is, if anybody remembers the movie “The Fifth Element.” It’s still something of a cult/classic in the SF genre (I’ve seen it many times in the discount DVD bins.) Anyway, one prominent scene in the movie features a robotic cockroach that eavesdrops on the President of the Federation (yes, it’s a ‘bug’). The robot cockroach moves very fast, is quite small, but unfortunately is detected and crushed.

If you remember that scene, then you may get the point about a robotic cockroach. Real cockroaches are not only fast, but incredibly versatile in how they cover the territory. Up walls and down, over obstacles, through cracks and holes, nothing seems to phase a cockroach. That’s why moving a robot like a cockroach isn’t a completely cockamamie idea. Practical though? Not so much. The energy, coordination, and communications required would be beyond today’s technology. Not inconceivable, just not yet. But that certainly doesn’t stop robotic specialists from speculating.

“Humans can run, but frankly our capabilities are nothing compared to what insects and some other animals can do,” said John Schmitt, an assistant professor in the School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at OSU. “Cockroaches are incredible. They can run fast, turn on a dime, move easily over rough terrain, and react to perturbations faster than a nerve impulse can travel.”

“If we ever develop robots that can really run over rough ground, they can’t afford to use so much of their computing abilities and energy demand to accomplish it,” Schmitt said. “A cockroach doesn’t think much about running, it just runs. And it only slows down about 20 percent when going over blocks that are three times higher than its hips. That’s just remarkable, and an indication that their stability has to do with how they are built, rather than how they react.”

If successful, Schmitt said, running robots could serve valuable roles in difficult jobs, such as military operations, law enforcement or space exploration. Related technology might also be applied to improve the function of prosthetic limbs for amputees, or serve other needs.

[Source: Oregon State]

I love the last line. It could apply to any of several hundred robotic designs. It doesn’t take much imagination, or a movie, to understand that robotic bugs (both literal and figurative) could be pretty scary “in the wrong hands,” which from my point of view is just about any hands at all. But this is a PR release, where the spin is always positive. Okay. I’ll wait for the thousands of technical advances to happen, and one day we’ll see the real robotic cockroach.

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