Roach-inspired robots buddy up to climb stairs

The VelociRoACH gets by with a little help from its friend

If you've ever watched a war or adventure movie, you're well familiar with the "no man left behind" ethic. Now, thanks to an advance involving their VelociRoACH, researchers at University of California at Berkeley's Biomimetic Millisystems Lab have figured out a way to create machines that will have a "no robot left behind" sense of duty – at least when it comes to climbing stairs.

By outfitting the small and fast robots with a magnetic connector and a winch, the researchers demonstrated a novel way for them to climb stairs that would be too tall to conquer for any VelociRoACH on its own.

First the front robot navigates much as the roach that inspired its design would. It encounters the obstacle of the step and basically plows right into it at full steam until it pitches back to its hind legs with its front legs on the top of the step, which measures 6.5 centimeters tall (about 2.5 in).

This is when its buddy comes into play.

The rear robot gives it a boost by shoving right into it. At the same time it makes a magnetic connection to a small tether controlled by a winch. The force of the nudge propels the front robot to the top of the step. From there, that robot moves forward to get some leverage and uses the tether attached to the rear bot to pull it up on top of the step. Throughout the process, the tether length is modulated by the bots so that the slack and tension remains correct during the whole procedure.

In a paper detailing the work, the researchers point out that in the future, equipping the robots with sensors – for example, those indicating if the magnetic connection from the winch is severed – could increase the success of this cooperative climbing procedure, which, in the tests, was around 50 percent.

This, of course, isn't the first time we've seen work involving the speedy little VelociRoACH. Researchers at UC Berkeley have previously attached the mechanized critter to a flying module and also designed it a special shell that helps it squeeze through tight places. The nature-inspired, or biomimetic, bot has been scampering around their labs since 2013.

The first iteration of VelociRoACH could reach speeds of 2.7 meters per second, which meant it could cover 26 times its body length in a single second. The second version, the X2-VelociRoACH could zip along at an impressive 4.9 meters per second (you can see it in action here).

But before clicking out to watch that video, have a look at the one below showing just how the little cooperative bots have overcome a big obstacle.


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