Often in pursuit of technological advancement, our leading inventors and scientists look to the natural world for inspiration. The design for Velcro was inspired by the burdock plant, which stuck to inventor George de Mestral’s pants as he and his dog were hunting in the Alps.
After looking at the skin of a shark under a microscope, NASA scientists developed a drag-reducing coating for spaceships. The same technology helped Stars & Stripes win the America’s Cup sailing race in 1987.
In the 1990s, inventor Eiji Nakatsu noticed that a kingfisher bird could dive into the water and barely make a splash, and the kingfisher’s beak later served as the inspiration for the first bullet trains. As you can see, nature has been inspiring inventors for centuries, and it’s likely that our species’s greatest minds will keep looking to the natural world for inspiration far into the future.
In the field of robotics, researchers recently ran into a problem: how do you give robots the ability to get back up when they fall down? Surprisingly, the ways in which humans can get back on their feet after they’ve fallen down are quite complex and difficult to mechanize. And, for a while, these researchers struggled with giving robots the ability to right themselves after they’ve taken a tumble.
However, thanks to one particular type of insect, this problem is on the verge of being solved. The click beetle, which is able to propel itself skyward when it’s stuck on its back, has served as the model for a new robot technology that allows robots to also get back on their feet after falling over. Once again, the solution to our problems has been found in nature.
Personally, I’ve seen click beetles do their thing before, and it’s pretty cool to say the least. You can turn them over onto their back, and they’ll snap two parts of their body together, producing a clicking noise, and propel themselves about 12 inches into the air in hopes that they fall right-side up.
It’s really a game of chance and they often land right on their backs again, in which case they’re forced to perform the maneuver over and over again until they’re back on their legs. Observing this behavior in insects is amazing, but watching robots perform the same maneuver may be even more interesting. Let’s look at how click beetles have helped robotics experts get their creations back on their feet.
About Click Beetles
The scientific name for the family known as click beetles is Elateridae, and they’re also sometimes referred to as snapping beetles, elaters, spring beetles, or skipjacks (which is probably my favorite name of the bunch). This particular family of beetles is characterized by the unique clicking mechanism that is part of their anatomy.
The mechanism works by snapping one part of the insect’s thorax into a corresponding notch in another section of the thorax, which produces a violent clicking sound (hence the insect’s name). This behavior is used primarily to avoid predation, to launch the beetle into the air to avoid being eaten, but can also be used to right themselves back on their feet if they’re stuck on their backs.
How Click Beetles Have Helped Robots
Robots are useful for performing many tasks that are dangerous or inconvenient for humans. Modern robotics have evolved to incorporate intricate legs and wheels that allow robots to navigate difficult terrains.
These robots can be used to rescue people from wreckages, diffuse bombs, and perform many other tasks that directly save human lives. However, the technology has yet to be perfected, and robots will occasionally fall over and be unable to get up.
If we’re talking about a robot that’s navigating tough terrain and searching for people in an avalanche, for example, that robot getting up is the difference between life and death.
Here’s where the click beetle comes in. Mechanical engineers and entomologists have been working together to study the click beetle and adapt their unique way of getting back on their feet to robots. The design is simple yet effective and allows robots to navigate narrow channels and cracks during rescue missions. This new technology could save countless lives as it becomes more widespread and improvements are made.
University of Illinois Research
Research into click beetles as bioinspiration for robotics is being led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Assistant Professor Aimy Wissa and her team of mechanical engineering students led by graduate student Ophelia Bolmin have been making major strides in the field and have developed some robot prototypes that could soon be used in the field for rescue missions or even missions on other planets.
The team was granted the opportunity to present their findings at Living Machines 2017: The 6th International Conference on Biomimetic and Biohybrid Systems at Stanford University and also won second place in a student and faculty research competition at the international BIOMinnovate Challenge, in Paris, France.
The research began with a group of insect physiology students that decided to examine the body mechanics of click beetles as part of a class project. Before this, very little research had been done on click beetles, so the studies conducted by the students and their professor are somewhat groundbreaking.
The researchers examined several different species of click beetles. First, they put them through a series of examinations and characterizations to determine the basic physiology of the click beetles. Next, they observed the click-jump behavior using high-speed cameras and measured the amount of force that was necessary to overcome the friction of the clicking mechanism.
Once these observations were made, the entomologists opened up a dialogue with the mechanical engineers, with both teams informing the other and trying to mimic the click beetle’s body dynamics with robotics.
The two teams work hand-in-hand to develop a spring-loaded mechanism that could propel robots back up onto their legs after they have fallen down. Any robot using this technology would have to be quite small due to the fact that propelling a larger robot into the air would require too much energy and repeated impacts could result in mechanical damage.
Larger robots could use the technology on other planets, though — particularly on planets with less gravity where the mechanism wouldn’t need as much energy to work and the impacts would be less forceful. That means we could see click beetle-inspired robots jumping around on the Moon or Mars in a few years.