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Discrete and Process Automation

Looking to Insects for Self-Righting Robot Design

26 September 2017
Robotics may draw inspiration from the hinge-like, self-righting mechanism found in click beetles. Image credit: L. Brian Stauffer.

It’s tough when robots tip.

For all the complex capabilities robotics has imparted on cyber-beings, tipping over has been an Achilles heel of sorts. Robots tip over, and they’re rendered just about useless. But a team of University of Illinois mechanical engineers and entomologists are working on solving this robotics challenge. They’re looking to click beetles, which can right themselves without the use of their legs.

"This idea came to life when a group of insect physiology students decided to take a closer look at what makes click beetles jump,” said entomology research scientist and study co-author Marianne Alleyne. When knocked over, Alleyne explained, the beetles employ a hinge-like mechanism located between their heads and their abdomens that allows them to flip into the air and back onto their feet. The working of that mechanism is also what makes them click.

Alongside co-author and lead investigator Aimy Wissa, Alleyne teaches a course in bioinspiration design—a field that takes inspiration from design principles found in biological evolution to enhance synthetic design. “Very little research had been performed on these beetles,” Alleyne added, “and I thought this legless jumping mechanism would be a perfect candidate for further exploration in the field of bioinspiration.”

Wissa, who is a mechanical sciences and engineering professor, detailed the research process. It takes into account the force needed by each individual beetle’s jumping mechanism to overcome the friction of the hinge. "Each insect goes through an assembly line of analyses that involve basic characterization, high-speed filming to observe the jump and measurements in the Materials Tribiology Lab,” she said. "We observe, model and validate each stage of the jump with the hopes that we can later integrate them into a self-righting robot."

The researchers presented their findings at Living Machines 2017 at Stanford University, and later won second place in a competition at the international BIOMinnovate Challenge in Paris, France. Wissa noted that the study is a two-way street: “Engineers are informing the biologists, and vice versa,” she said.

The group has already built several prototypes of a hinge-like, spring-loaded device that will eventually be incorporated into a robot.

To contact the author of this article, email tony.pallone@ieeeglobalspec.com


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