for National Geographic News
To most of us, cockroaches are a nasty nuisance. But to a team of engineers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, the pesky critters are excellent role models.
So when the scientists set out to build an antenna for a robot, they turned to cockroach biology.
The sensor-laden antenna they built resembles a cockroach's navigational appendage. The antenna sends signals to the robot's electronic brain, enabling the machine to scurry along walls, turn corners, and avoid obstacles, just like a cockroach.
The technology could provide an important navigational alternative for robots that are dispatched into dangerous locations, such as collapsed buildings.
Most robotic vehicles rely on artificial vision or sonar systems for their navigation. However, robotic eyes don't operate well in low light, and sonar systems can be confused by polished surfaces.
When a robot navigates with a sense of touch, on the other hand, "there is nothing that has to travel through the air that can be interfered with by particulate matter [like dust or smoke]," said the team leader, Noah Cowan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins.
As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, Cowan and colleagues from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, built a crude antenna prototype based on the navigational techniques of a cockroach.
After moving to Johns Hopkins, Cowan began refining the prototype design. His team studied cockroach locomotion to see how cockroaches use their antennae to track along walls in the dark.
To do that, the engineers built an oval-shaped "obstacle course" for the cockroaches, and then filmed the insects as they maneuvered inside it.
"Every time I looked at the images of the runs, I was in awe of the cockroaches' agility and speed," said Jusuk Lee, a Ph.D. student who collected the data.
His observations provided crucial clues as to how cockroach antennae work, guiding many of the ideas about how to build a robotic antenna.
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