Being skinny isn’t always the answer. By giving a robot cockroach a rounded back, it became much better at navigating narrow gaps, as shown in the video above.

Although a streamlined shape is key to making a robot fly or swim, this isn’t usually a concern with terrestrial robots. But Chen Li from the University of California, Berkeley, and his team decided to see if a modified body could help their cockroach-inspired machine to navigate through tight spaces, instead of adding sensors or motors. Although cockroaches are known for their ability to zip through tiny gaps, the effect of their shape was unknown.

Li and his colleagues tested their six-legged robot with a range of artificial shells as it tried to navigate through grass-like strips. Like cockroaches, it would roll sideways to pass through.

But with a flattened back, it often toppled over backwards, whereas a thin, rounded shell, similar to that of the real insect, helped it to correctly reorient itself after making its way through.

The team plans to follow up this work by looking for other shapes in nature that enhance movements on land, as well as shapes that could morph in different situations.

An earlier version of a robot cockroach, which is able to run at 2.7 metres per second, is the fastest robot for its size. Another tiny robot inspired by geckosMovie Cameracan carry objects that are more than 100 times its weight.

Journal reference: Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, DOI: 10.1088/1748-3190/10/4/046003

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