UC Berkeley researchers are collaborating to develop and research small, insect-inspired robots in the hopes of providing aid to search-and-rescue efforts.
A recent paper — authored by professor Ronald Fearing, the director of UC Berkeley’s Biomimetic Millisystems Laboratory, and graduate researcher Duncan Haldane — discusses the researchers’ development of the X2-VelociRoACH, a robotic cockroach that is the fastest legged robot relative to size. The lab’s work on the VelociRoACH has directly incorporated research concepts based on the stepping pattern of the cockroach in nature, according to Haldane.
Despite their lack of sophistication compared with animals such as humans, small insects can move with coordination on a variety of terrains, which makes them ideal models for robots intended for use in cluttered environments, according to Chen Li, a postdoctoral researcher at the lab.
Other groups within the lab are working on developing adhesives inspired by the structures of gecko toes and on devising a method for launching flying robots.
Fearing has overseen the development of the technology since 1998, and one of his goals is to build robots that are increasingly durable and inexpensive.
“Previously, our conventional robot technology used things like ball bearings and machine metal, so these ended up being very precise machines, but also very expensive and time-consuming to build,” Fearing said.
A single robot may not be able to exhibit physical capabilities comparable with those of an insect, such as the ability to run, fly and climb on ceilings, according to Fearing. But the engineers are able to put computer algorithms into the robots, “so we are getting to the point where the robots may not be as mechanically sophisticated as an insect, but we hope they are going to be smarter than one,” he said.
Austin Buchan, a graduate researcher, believes that with the research that has been conducted, the lab’s work can build upon advanced medical and emergency services.
The robots currently rely on external sources for some of the heavy processing, according to Buchan. In order to effectively orchestrate search-and-rescue missions, however, the robots must have enough artificial intelligence to gather sufficient information about their surrounding environment.
Buchan said he hopes these low-cost robots will eventually be able to navigate a collapsed-building type of environment and map out where people might be trapped.
Some small robots are able to carry microphones, cameras and accelerometers that detect vibrations. According to Fearing, future advancements could also include thermal sensors that would be able to distinguish a person from his or her background based on differing heat levels.