Robo-roach squeezes through tight spaces

Its shape lets the six-legged robot shimmy through obstacles

A six-legged robot can get stuck as it moves through narrow gaps in an obstacle course of stiff paper strips (bottom). But adding an arched shell to the machine (top, right) lets it turn sideways (bottom, right). Now it can scuttle through cracks with ease, just like a cockroach — its inspiration.


Cluttered terrain won’t block this cockroach-bot. Its sleek, rounded shell lets the new six-legged robot scurry through tight spaces.

Known as a robo-roach, it’s short and squat. It sort of resembles a clunky smartphone with legs. Such a bulky body poses few problems when trekking over flat surfaces. But it can get stuck when it travels between upright features. Bots tend to bump into these obstacles — unless it’s wearing a roach-style shell.

COCKROACH STYLE To scurry through an obstacle course of upright paper strips, cockroaches turn their bodies sideways (shown here first in real time and then in slow-motion). A clunky six-legged robot can copy these skills when wearing a roach-inspired shell. Without that shell, the bot gets caught trying to squeeze through tight spaces. Caroline Reid/YouTube

Chen Li works at the University of California, Berkeley. There, he has been designing mobile robots to navigate through complex ground-based environments. These might include anything from a forest, field or building to a disaster site. Li describes this field of research as terradynamics, a term that merges the idea of terrain and movements. Akin to aerodynamics, the science of things moving through air, this field develops machines to move across the ground.

For their new study, Li and his team added an arched plastic shell to their clunky robot. Its streamlined top now resembles an insect — think cockroach. Developing devices that mimic living organisms is known as biomimetics or biomimicry. The shell lets the bot wiggle through a maze of paper strips that stood upright like blades of grass. What’s more, like real roaches, the shell-wearing bot can “body roll,” flip sideways to shimmy through gaps.

Streamlining robots might prove a simple way to help machines hike through natural environments — like a forest floor littered with grass, shrubs and fungi, Li’s team now suggests.

The researchers described their new findings online June 22 in Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

Power Words

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biomimicry   The creation of new devices or techniques based on those seen in living organisms.

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create for that organism or process. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature, humidity and placement of components in some electronics system or product.

fungus  (plural: fungi) One of a group of single- or multiple-celled organisms that reproduce via spores and feed on living or decaying organic matter. Examples include mold, yeasts and mushrooms.

robot  A machine that can sense its environment, process information and respond with specific actions. Some robots can act without any human input, while others are guided by a human.

shrub   A perennial plant that grows in a generally low, bushy form.

terrain    The land in a particular area and whatever covers it. The term might refer to anything from a smooth, flat and dry landscape to a mountainous region covered with boulders, bogs and forest cover.

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