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Cockroaches Inspire Stanford Doctoral Student's Engineering Design
McClung's 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."

McClung's Stanford team tweaks a robot.

The insect’s simple mechanical structure and the ease with which it clears obstructions inspired scientists to model robots after cockroaches. The creature’s 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 harm’s path unnecessarily," he says.


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