US researchers have created a robot that can use its body shape to move through a densely cluttered environment. The team from the University of California Berkeley based the robot on the humble cockroach and hope their design could be used to inspire future robot designs for use in monitoring the environment and search and rescue operations.
The Berkeley team, led by postdoctoral researcher Chen Li, designed the shell so it could perform a roll maneuver to slip through gaps between grass-like vertical beam obstacles without the need for additional sensors or motors.
The initial test results of the robot's performance are published in IOP Publishing's journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, released Tuesday.
Other terrestrial robots have been developed with the ability to avoid obstacles, but few have been designed to traverse them.
Researchers used high-speed cameras to study the movement of Blaberus discoidalis, otherwise known as the discoid cockroach, through an artificial obstacle course containing grass-like vertical beams with small spacing. Living on the floor of tropical rainforests, the Blaberus encounters a wide variety of cluttered obstacles, such as blades of grass, shrubs, leaf litter, tree trunks, and fungi.
After examining the cockroaches the researchers tested their small, rectangular, six-legged robot and observed whether it was able to traverse a similar obstacle course. They found that with a rectangular body the robot could not often traverse the grass-like beams and frequently collided with the obstacles, regularly becoming stuck.
When the robot was fitted with the streamlined shell it was much more likely to successfully move through the obstacle course using a similar roll maneuver to the cockroaches. This adaptive behavior came about with no change to the robot programming, showing that the behavior came from the shell itself.
According to Li, "our next steps will be to study a diversity of terrain and animal shapes to discover more terradynamic shapes, and even morphing shapes. These new concepts will enable terrestrial robots to go through various cluttered environments with minimal sensors and simple controls."

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