Plastic shell lets roach-bot squeeze through gaps

Shape helps six-legged robot shimmy past obstacles

cockroach-inspired robot

TIGHT FIT  A cockroach-inspired robot can get stuck as it moves through narrow gaps in an obstacle course of stiff paper strips (bottom). But adding an arched shell to the machine (top, right) lets it turn sideways (bottom, right), helping it scuttle through cracks.

Chen Li, courtesy of PolyPEDAL Lab, Biomimetic Millisystems Lab and CiBER/UC Berkeley

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Cluttered terrain won’t block this cockroach-bot. A sleek, rounded shell lets the six-legged robot scurry through tight spaces, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley report online June 22 in Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

The robo-roach is short and squat, kind of like a clunky smartphone with legs. A bulky body is fine for trekking over flat surfaces, but not so much for moving in three dimensions. Bots tend to bump into obstacles and get stuck — but wearing a roach-style shell can help.

The arched plastic shell let the roach-bot wiggle through a maze of paper strips that stood upright like blades of grass, researchers found. Like real roaches, the shell-wearing bot could “body roll,” flipping sideways to shimmy through gaps.

Streamlining robots’ shapes could be a simple way to help machines hike through natural environments like a forest floor littered with grass, shrubs and fungi, the study’s authors suggest.

ROBOT PARKOUR  Cockroaches can shoulder through an obstacle course of upright paper strips by turning their bodies sideways and scooting through narrow gaps (shown first in real time and then in slow-motion). A clunky six-legged robot can copy cockroaches’ skills when wearing a roach-inspired shell. Without the shell, the bot gets caught trying to squeeze through tight spaces. But with the shell, the bot can crawl through the paper obstacle course as deftly as a roach. Credit: Caroline Reid/YouTube

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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