Go to the Roach, Thou Robotics Designer
Most of us can’t step on them fast enough, but of cockroaches, engineers at Johns Hopkins say “the pesky critters are excellent role models” – for robotics. Classroom exercises include building obstacle courses for cockroaches and observing how they use their antennae to navigate, even in the dark. Said one student, experienced in trying to build robots that can navigate based on perception, “Every time I looked at the images of the runs, I was in awe of the cockroaches’ agility and speed.”
The story by Stefan Lovgren in National Geographic News says engineers want to learn how the insects achieve rapid locomotion control. Cockroaches can sweep their antenna up and down and side to side when standing still to survey their surroundings, but hold them steady when running. Like radar, the antenna give them a continuous status report on their surroundings.
Some day, artificial cockroachbots may be able to crawl inside collapsed buildings looking for trapped people, or explore battlefields for missing soldiers. Actual robotics applications mimicking the antennae are “extraordinarily limited” to date, the article says: “But scientists are increasingly looking at some of nature’s solutions to help them overcome several of the problems that hamper progress using traditional engineering methods” (emphasis added).
By the way, a team at Northwestern is using a different biological model system for study: rat’s whiskers.
“The vermin have become our role models” sounds like something a cynical talk show host might say. But in the context of this story, it’s an interesting insight into design right under our feet. Who would have thought that lowly and despised critters scurrying about in our yards (and, to our disgust sometimes, our homes) are providing scientists with a sense of awe over their engineered capabilities?
We humans are justly proud of our Mars rovers that struggle about at two inches per second and manage to avoid obstacles, but just imagine: if we could mount cameras and radio transmitters on cockroaches and release a batch out there, you can bet every nook and cranny on the whole planet would be explored in short order.
Scientists are justified to envy “nature’s solutions” and try to imitate them (although “nature” is not a person). How scientists can stand in awe of the robotics capabilities of a cockroach or rat, and then turn around and say these technologies came about by the accumulation of accidents, is illogical in the extreme. Let’s learn the true lesson of biomimetics: the world has a Designer with vastly superior engineering skills than ours. Logic would continue that if He knows this much about rapid locomotion control, He must also have a lot of other things to teach us.