Thursday, 28 February 2013

Running Cockroaches Give Robotics A Fast Track To Success

April Flowers for redOrbit – Your Universe Online
Researchers from the University of Michigan have found that running cockroaches begin to recover from being pushed sideways even before their nervous systems kick in to tell their legs what to do. The research team hopes that these new insights on the stabilization of biological systems could one day help engineers design steadier robots. The findings, published online in Biological Cybernetics, might also improve doctors’ understanding of human gait abnormalities.

The roaches being tested were able to maintain their footing mechanically by using their momentum and the spring-like architecture of their legs, rather than neurologically by relying on impulses sent from their central nervous system to their muscles.

“The response time we observed is more than three times longer than you’d expect,” said Shai Revzen, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, as well as ecology and evolutionary biology, at the University of Michigan.

“What we see is that the animals’ nervous system is working at a substantial delay,” he said in a statement. “It could potentially act a lot sooner, within about a thirtieth of a second, but instead, it kicks in after about a step and a half or two steps—about a tenth of a second. For some reason, the nervous system is waiting and seeing how it shapes out.”

The research team sent 15 cockroaches running across a small bridge onto a placemat-sized cart on wheels. The roaches were sent one at a time, for a total of 41 trials. The cart was attached to an elastic cord, pulled tight like a loaded slingshot. This was held in place by a strong magnet on the other side. The researchers released the magnet once the roach was approximately one body length onto the cart. The force of the cart’s movement is equivalent to a sumo wrestler hitting a jogger in a flying tackle. Revzen said that cockroaches are much more stable than humans.

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