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What roaches can teach robots about running at high speeds

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When a cockroach scuttles away from you and your insect-killing weapon of choice, its nervous system no longer responds fast enough for it to reliably sense its surroundings. Instead, the cockroach relies on its antennae to communicate how near it is to crashing into an obstacle.

Researchers believe they can emulate cockroaches’ antennae to give robots better awareness of their surroundings too. Like cockroaches, robots traveling at high speeds can have trouble noticing and responding to obstacles fast enough to avoid them. Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley found that cockroaches have evolved the best shape of antennae to do so. They published their work in the Journal of Experimental Biology this week (subscription required).

The Berkeley team found that when the insects run along a wall, they drag their antennae on it. When their antennae bend, it indicates the wall is rougher and they should keep a larger distance from it. If they hit an obstacle, the antennae bend even further.

Cockroach antennae are covered in tiny hairs that the researchers suspected influenced in how they bend. To test their role, the researchers decided to take the gruesome step of removing the hairs from the cockroaches’ antennae.

“The first thing I tried to do was use tiny forceps to pluck the hairs out, but that turned out to be impossible because these hairs are very robust and they’re embedded within the exoskeleton,” researcher Jean-Michel Mongeau said in a release. “After going through several rounds of trial and error, or mostly error, I decided to try a laser system that burns these little hairs at the tip.”

The hairless antennae did not bend, causing the cockroaches to be more likely to run into a wall.

The researchers then tested robot antennae studded with similar artificial hairs. If they changed their orientation even slightly, the antennae failed to bend. They hope the knowledge can be incorporated into the design of future high-speed robots. Maybe Boston Dynamic’s WildCat could learn a thing or two from cockroaches.

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