Bugs Are Teaching Robots How to Jump Up Without Legs

This is the eyed click beetle, one of more than 10,000 species of click beetle. Richard Bonnett on Flickr

When a click beetle lands on its back, it doesn't roll back and forth to get up. It can't just turn over like a person could. So, it employs a bizarre mechanism to get up—it "clicks" its back to launch itself into the air and hopes that it lands right-side up.

These snapping behaviors aren't just fun to watch. Robot-makers are looking to them to add a jumping adaptation to certain robots, Nature reports.

The click model is ideal for smaller robots because it doesn't require much complex machinery or muscle. Scientists at the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering and the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign came together to write a paper about the mechanics of self-righting without legs, focusing on how click beetles do it. The paper was published in the journal Biomimetic and Biohybrid Systems .

When put on their back, click beetles have an amusing way of getting their legs on the ground again. They fold up their legs as if dead, and then they slowly arch the hinge between their head and body. Then—Snap!—they release the hinge and crack upward like a mousetrap, throwing themselves up in the air, many times higher than their own height. This technique is successful and pervasive—there are more than 10,000 known species of click beetle.

Biomimicry is defined as "design inspired by nature." When a creator notices that a plant or animal does something well, they can incorporate that physiology or behavior into their creations. For example, a bat-inspired flying robot—or "bat bot"—took flight in February. In 2016, an "Octobot" was inspired by the octopus. Even praying mantises could help build better robots.

Robots in development today could be useful for the purpose of rescuing people. For example, Boston Dynamics makes robots that can travel arduous terrain, like steep inclines with obstacles. Some of their robots can jump using leg-like appendages, like other robots.

However, Boston Dynamics robots wouldn't be able to use the click model, because they're too heavy. Big Dog, one of their oldest-yet-most-famous robots, is 240 lbs. Gal Ribak, who has studied the beetle's jumps, says that only robots up to a few tens of grams in weight would be able to use the clicking technique to jump or right themselves. The impact of a heavy machine slamming against the ground to propel itself skyward would most likely damage the robot.

Landing wouldn't be ideal, either.