Robot Cockroaches Cooperate to Complete Tasks

robots VelociRoACH cockroach insect robotics
The VelociRoACHes use a magnetic winch to help each other climb a step. UC Berkeley/ Biomimetics Millisystems Lab

In certain parts of central Africa, army ants team up to create inch-high tunnels that protect worker ants as they gather food for the colony.

Such feats of cooperation have inspired researchers at UC Berkeley to create a new generation of robots that help each other perform tasks they wouldn't be able to carry out by themselves.

Carlos Casarez and his team at UC Berkeley's Biomimetic Millisystems Lab developed an insect-like robot called VelociRoACH (Velocity Robotic Autonomous Crawling Hexapod) that is equipped with a magnetic winch.

By cooperating with other robots of its type, the VelociRoACH is able to overcome obstacles like stairs.

"The two connected robots can raise the front robot over the top of the step, while a single robot can only pitch upward against the step," states an upcoming study detailing the VelociRoACH's capabilities.

The connected winch is then used by the front robot to pull the second robot up the step before detaching the magnetic tether.

The researchers hope techniques like the one employed by VelociRoACH could one day be used by robots operating in disaster areas with terrain that is difficult to navigate.

"I think there is some more interesting work in exploring how far two-robot cooperation can go," Casarez told IEEE Spectrum. "For example, instead of climbing a step, the robot with the winch could be used as an anchor for a tethered VelociRoACH that explores down an unknown chasm, which can then be retrieved after exploring.

"Also, if you want to get 10 VelociRoACH robots over a two-robot climbable obstacle, you can simply follow the cooperation primitives in the paper, then keep attaching more winch robots to the back of the leading winch robot."