Scientists engineer robots that walk like real insects

The purpose is to make the machines more agile.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Drosophibot II walking.jpg
Drosophibot II walking.

Nicholas Szczecinski 

Scientists are studying real and robotic insects to understand better how they sense forces in their limbs while walking to produce more agile large-legged robots.

The experts are researching campaniform sensilla (CS), force receptors found in the limbs of insects that respond to stress and strain that can generate crucial data about controlling locomotion. 

This is according to a press release by the institution published on Thursday.

“I study the role of force sensors in walking insects because these sensors are critical for successful locomotion,” said Dr. Szczecinski, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources at West Virginia University, USA.

 “The feedback they provide is critical for proper posture and coordination.”

The researchers chose to build robotic models over computer models because they provide more realistic modeling of friction between moving parts, including delays in sending neural signals. Robotic limbs are even better than animal models as they can record the sending and receiving of every signal and resulting mechanical actions.

“Walking is an inherently mechanical task, so understanding the neural control of walking requires simultaneously investigating mechanics and neural control,” said Szczecinski. 

“Properly functioning walking robots can serve as prototypes for machines that could help people farm in extreme terrains, explore other planets, or walk through forests to monitor their health.”

Szczecinski relies on two main research robots: a biomimetic robot based on the fruit fly, which walks on six legs, and a single legged-robot, which allows for a simplified simulation of the sensory experience of one insect leg while walking.

Szczecinski also studies real insects exploring the role of CS by isolating their limbs and monitoring sensory pathways with electrodes when different forces are applied. The resulting recorded sensory signals are then used to develop models for the robotic legs.

“By recording their response to many different signals, we can paint a clearer picture of how they convert forces into neural activity,” said Szczecinski. “We use many different stimuli because the CS are highly dynamic and always adapt to the applied forces.”

Through his work, the researcher found that real insects and their robotic counterparts are similar. 

“We find that for every insect species we check, our model is equally well equipped to describe the way the CS turn forces into neural activity,” said Szczecinski in the statement. “This suggests that each species’ organs are broadly functioning in the same way.”