Campus researchers look to nature in development of insectlike robots

Researchers at UC Berkeley are engineering small robots capable of crawling and flying over all types of terrain, and they are looking to nature for inspiration.

Engineers at UC Berkeley’s Biomimetic Millisystems Lab are working closely with biologists to develop robots that function more fluidly in the environment by mimicking the movements and capabilities of insects and animals. They presented the finished product of their research Monday at the weeklong International Conference of Intelligent Robots and Systems in San Francisco.

This approach to engineering, known as biomimicry, requires engineers to work closely with biologists to develop models based on the behavior of organisms in nature.

Octoroach is one such robot, taking inspiration for its design from the cockroach and similar insects. The small robot, about the size of one’s hand, has compliant rather than rigid legs, allowing it to absorb the impact from rough terrain as real insects do.

Octoroach’s legs also function similarly to those of insects in that they allow for two distinct ranges of motion. The legs swing forward and backward but also swing toward and away from the body, allowing the robot a much more fluid gait.

The compliancy of the legs is a result of the smart composite manufacturing process used by the lab to construct robots. According to a 2008 paper on the process by Ron Fearing, campus professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the lab, and former UC Berkeley graduate student Aaron Hoover, the process constructs robots out of two materials — a composite fiber laminate for the rigid components and a polymer film for the joints.

The bodies are created with a series of laser cuts and folds, resulting in a completely integrated structure.

But the robots engineered at the UC Berkeley lab are not limited to the ground. A project called BOLT, which stands for Bipedal Ornithopter for Locomotion Transitioning, has taken the fluidly functioning legs of Octoroach and combined them with flapping wings.

BOLT draws inspiration for its design from “across the spectrum of insects that both crawl and fly, as they’re well-adapted to move over all types of terrain,” said researcher Kevin Peterson, a UC Berkeley graduate student in the department of electrical engineering and computer science.

The flapping wings of BOLT serve a dual purpose — they allow for flight and also lend the robot passive stability while running. The robot is thus able to traverse difficult environments that would present problems for robots without wings.

Because BOLT has both wings and legs, it has the ability to negotiate complex environments, Peterson said.

For example, BOLT could move over the rubble of a collapsed building with ease and would also be able to fly up a vertical shaft, which both have specific implications in search and rescue missions.

He added that the robots could be applied to military uses, such as close-quarters surveillance.

These advantages make BOLT particularly applicable to human purposes, Peterson said.

“One of the big motivations for us was search and rescue,” he said. “(BOLT) can fit through small spaces and move over rubble and go places that humans can’t.”