roach robots are designed to enter unstable buildings
and crawl up walls
While most people
are trying to stamp out cockroaches, Arthur McClung spends
his days studying and creating robots that mimic the creepy-crawlers.
Funded by a five-year grant from the Office of Naval Research,
McClung and his colleagues at Stanford University have developed
robots that can enter unstable buildings and crawl up walls.
"Although we are just completing
some of the early research stages in biomimetics--biologically
inspired robotics--the robots that we've developed have the
potential to be applied to many situations," says McClung.
"Imagine any case where a small maneuverable robot could be
handy. Once these robots are fully autonomous, they could
be used in most dry and possibly some wet conditions."
McClung, 28, is participating in
the Stanford program while earning his doctorate in mechanical
engineering, which he plans to complete in the next year and
a half. He previously completed a master's degree at the Palo
Alto, Calif. institution, and has two bachelors degrees one
in mechanical engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology
and the other in mathematics from Morehouse College. "I
have always liked building things and taking them apart. After
a few engineering classes, I knew mechanical engineering was
for me," says McClung. "During the past year I have been studying
the maneuverability of the robots by finding ways to get them
to turn and clear obstacles better. After completing (my doctorate),
I'd like to go into the private sector initially and try an
academic position later in my life."
Currently, McClung is working
with a dozen researchers to create a small army of cockroach
robots in the Sprawl Robots program at Stanford's Center for
Design Research, led by Professor of Mechanical Engineering
Mark Cutkosky. The ONR funding to Stanford is part of a total
of $3.7 million given to four universities over five years
to investigate new design techniques inspired by nature. The
others are University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University
and Johns Hopkins University. The Stanford facility is one
of the few laboratories in the U.S. that designs and manufactures
biomimetic robots. "I chose the lab because of its nice blend
of manufacturing, application and theoretical research in
a new and exciting field:," says McClung.
Time-lapse computer studies have
helped researchers determine that the bugs move using three
legs at a time two on one side, one on the other
allowing cockroaches to maneuver effortlessly
over uneven terrain. "Because of the advantages that robots
in this field have over more traditional wheeled robots, they
can be used in many capacities. Most involve instances where
it may be hazardous to send humans," says McClung. "In standing
or fallen structures, where chemicals may be present or space
limited, these robots could be used individually or as a team
with specialized sensing tasks, to obtain certain information
through various sensors."
Stanford team tweaks a robot.
The insects simple mechanical
structure and the ease with which it clears obstructions inspired
scientists to model robots after cockroaches. The creatures
self-stabilizing leg structure was much simpler than traditional
robotic designs and it can travel at speeds of up to 50 body-lengths
per second. Within the Sprawl Robot battalion is "Sprawlita"
the smallest, "Sprawley Davidson," the fastest,
"Agua-Sprawl" a water version and "Porta Sprawl,"
which sports portability. The robots are relatively cheap
and easy to build, giving the design a leg up on its competition.
In terms of hardware and capabilities,
the most advanced versions of the Sprawl Robots cost approximately
$1,200 to build, while the more basic models have a price
tag under $500. A little larger than an adult-sized hand,
the robots can be equipped with specialized payloads including:
a camera, microphone, tactile probes, chemical sensors for
inspection tasks, mechanical attachments to perform work using
grippers, or soldering devices to accomplish specific tasks.
McClung says the robots have the potential to safeguard workers
against dangerous tasks. "In all cases, it would be more
desirable to lose one or several relatively cheap and easy
to manufacture robots than put one person in harms path
unnecessarily," he says.