When they turn up in the family home or restaurant kitchens, cockroaches are commonly despised as ugly, unhealthy pests and are quickly killed. But in the name of science, Johns Hopkins researchers have put these unwanted insects to work.
In a crowded, windowless lab, scholars and students are coaxing the bugs to share some crucial locomotion tips that could help future robotic vehicles traverse treacherous terrain.
Picture the aftermath of an earthquake or the cluttered, unexplored surface of another planet. Human teams might hesitate to enter such hazard-strewn regions. But what earthly lifeform - other than the one jokingly said to be able to survive even an atomic bomb blast - is more likely to persist on dangerous alien landscape?
For missions like these, the Johns Hopkins researchers want to build robots that behave more like cockroaches. The team's early findings are the subject of two related research papers published in the journal 'Bioinspiration & Biomimetics'.
Sean W Gart, a postdoctoral fellow who puts the roaches through their paces, was lead author of the two papers. The senior author was Chen Li, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering who directs the Terradynamics Lab. It focuses on movement science at the interface of biology, robotics and physics.
Inside the lab, cockroaches scurry along tracks laden with two types of obstacles: large "bumps" and equally large "gaps". These mimic the holes and barriers that the roaches might have encountered in their rugged natural habitat.