Robot hordes are one step closer as robo roaches learn to work together

It takes two to tango. Two heads are better than one. The more the merrier.

There’s no shortage of adages about the benefits of cooperation. Even the animal kingdom expresses this value. Ants attach to each other to form giant rafts after heavy rainfall. Lions hunt in prides. Humans have an inclination toward self-interest, yet still cooperate to reach a shared goal. Inspired by these natural displays of cooperation –particularly in Australian jumping ants, who team together to travel over tough terrain– mechanical engineer Carlos Casarez decided to build cockroach-like robots that work in pairs to overcome obstacles. 

At UC Berkeley’s Biomimetics Millisystems Labs, Casarez and Professor Ron Fearing developed the velocity robotic autonomous crawling hexapod (Velociroach) – a set of simple machines capable of climbing tall steps in teams. To do so, the lead robot first scrambles it’s front legs onto the obstacle. The second robot then pushes from behind, while attaching a magnetic tether to the robot in front. Once the first robot is securely up the step, it moves forward and digs its legs into a crevasse. The back robot then pulls on the tether while scrambling, eventually managing to climb the step and detach the magnetic tether from the front robot.

The process definitely isn’t seamless, but it works. However, each of the cooperative climbing stages fails about half of the time as the robots get stuck, flip over, or fall from the step. Even in the successful attempt, the robots seem to just flail their limbs until they find their footing. 

UC Berkeley robotics labs have been the birthplace of a number of insect-inspired robots in the past. The Micromechanical Flying Insect Project saw roboticists develop a small, flying robot inspired by fly flight aerodynamics. Earlier this year, engineers built a cockroach-inspired robot that can squeeze through tight cracks. The Velociroach and these other machines may seem insignificant, but their creators hope they will one day assist in search-and-rescue operations in areas where human travel is either unsafe or impractical.