UC Berkeley researchers build wall-climbing robot based on cockroaches

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Shaun Lien/Staff

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UC Berkeley researchers were able to use robots to mimic the swift maneuver of cockroaches, building on a study conducted in 2016 about reflecting the behavior of cockroaches in robots.

Cockroaches can switch from walking on the ground to climbing a wall almost immediately — a behavior that was discovered accidentally, according to lead researcher Kaushik Jayaram, who worked on the study as a campus doctoral candidate. Jayaram, who is now a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard University, said campus researchers have been studying the insects for 20 years and have recently discovered that the cockroaches run into walls without pausing.

“One day in lab, we constantly saw them … immediately climbing up the wall,” Jayaram said. “We always thought that it was because of their eyes or their senses or antennae, but we found that the antennae weren’t even being used.”

The researchers were able to deduce that the cockroaches were not using their brains, according to campus professor of integrative biology Robert Full, but were using their bodies — the response of climbing up vertical walls is automatic. Full added that when they crash into the wall, they absorb energy, which gives them the ability to go up to the wall in approximately 75 milliseconds.

Full and Jayaram were able to collaborate with Ronald Fearing, campus professor of electrical engineering and computer science, to create a robot that would prove that their hypothesis about cockroach behavior was true. According to Fearing, these kinds of collaborations between biology and robotics can be “powerful” in proving biological discoveries as well as creating agile robots.

“If you dig into examples in nature, you can come up with a principal of what nature uses and use this to make robots,” Jayaram said.

The robots have their limits and can weigh a maximum of only 1 kilogram — if they are any larger, they will break, according to Full.

Using this technology, researchers can build a cage around drones that mimics a skeletal structure that absorbs energy. This would allow future drones to deliver products directly by colliding with a person without harming the individual, because the energy would be absorbed by the robot, according to Full.

The technology can also be used for search and rescue situations. The robots have the capacity to squeeze into small spaces, which can help find people in a collapsed building. According to Fearing, the agility these findings provide will allow robots to recover people faster and work within the limits of their battery life.

The next step is to give these robots the ability to run on uneven surfaces and navigate with more obstacles, according to Fearing.
“You never know where curiosity-based research will lead,” Full said. “It led us to discovering a fundamental principle.”

Contact Isabella Sabri at [email protected].