Bio-inspired robot can snap itself upright when it’s upside down

Robots can be clumsy. They bump into and trip over things. And while companies like Boston Dynamics have developed some sophisticated machines, even those have been known to stumble off stage.

Now, researchers at the University of Illinois have turned to nature to design a bio-inspired robot that can turn itself upright if it ends up on its backside. To right themselves, the robots don’t use their legs but instead snap themselves upright using a spring-loaded mechanism similar to that found in the click beetle.

“Robots inspired by animals are not really new but they usually focus on improved stability and balance,” Aimy Wissa, lead investigator of the project, told Digital Trends. “But falling is inevitable. Rather than creating legs that can locomote, balance, and get help with self-righting we think that looking at nature to find ways of self-righting that do not involve legs would make the robot’s design simpler and more robust. Examples among insects that jump without using legs are springtails, trap-jaw ants, and click beetles. The details of how a beetle is able to jump are still unclear, and that has been our main focus until now.”

Click beetles have hinge-like mechanisms in their bodies which click, vault them into the air, and flip them upright. The researchers’ creation of a robotic form of this behavior is a product of collaboration between two, seemingly unrelated fields: etymology and mechanical engineering.

The spring-like mechanism offers a unique solution to the task of getting robots up off the floor, and may be integrated into future robot designs to help them integrate more effectively into our everyday world.

“In the future robots will be deployed in various environments,” Wissa said. “For instance, they will be used to autonomously monitor our greenhouses, survey dangerous areas, and explore other planets. These uneven and sometime not well-known terrains make robots susceptible to falling and humans may not want to or be able to assist them.”

Wissa and her team presented their study at Stanford University during Living Machines 2017: The 6th International Conference on Biomimetic and Biohybrid Systems. The team later won second place in the BIOMinnovate Challenge, a research expo showcasing biologically inspired designs.