Quick like a cockroach

Author: John Monczunski

As anyone who has ever attempted to smash one knows, cockroaches are among God’s most agile creatures. They can achieve speeds of 50 times their body length per second, darting to safety before your rolled-up newspaper is anywhere near wreaking its vengeance. That ability, researchers have concluded, makes them an excellent model system to learn how to make nimble, maneuverable robots. All of which explains the smile that came to Alan Bowling’s face last spring when the Notre Dame assistant professor of mechanical engineering examined the equations and analysis of his graduate student Yanto Go.

When Bowling compared the theoretical results with the cockroach experimental findings of University of California biologist Robert Full, the results matched up perfectly. “Our analysis predicted that you will achieve the greatest acceleration by pushing off at about mid-stride, and that’s precisely what Full’s experimental results show,” Bowling says. “As far as we know, we are the first to get the theory that would predict this behavior. Basically we have an analysis that looks at the equations of motion and from that we are able to determine how well a legged system can use ground contact to produce acceleration.”

Using that information, Bowling and his research group hope to develop agile locomotion in a legged robot. Legged locomotion is superior to wheels, the ND engineer explains, because it is more maneuverable and better at moving across uneven or obstacle-filled terrain.