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Want a more stable robot? Try pushing a cockroach!

Gait and balance are some of the trickiest problems in robotics but now monitoring how cockroaches recover after being pushed may help engineers build sturdier robots.

Initial research has found that, when pushed sideways, running cockroaches start to recover well before their sluggish nervous system kicks in to tell their legs what to do. 

This indicates that roaches are able to maintain their footing mechanically, using their momentum and the spring-like architecture of their legs, rather than neurologically, relying on impulses sent from their central nervous system to their muscles.

The findings run contrary to assumptions in the robotics community, where computers stand in for brains and the machines' movements are often guided by continuous feedback from sensors on the robots' feet.

Project lead, Shai Revzen, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, at the University of Michigan said the new findings might imply that the biological brain, at least in cockroaches, adjusts the gait only at whole-step intervals rather than at any point in a step. The research suggests that periodic, rather than continuous, feedback systems might lead to more stable (not to mention energy-efficient) walking robots.

To arrive at their findings, the researchers sent 15 cockroaches running across a small bridge onto a cart on wheels, which was then sent hurtling sideways.

The research is available on Biological Cybernetics online

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