TED2014

Robert Full: The secrets of nature's grossest creatures, channeled into robots

Filmed:

How can robots learn to stabilize on rough terrain, walk upside down, do gymnastic maneuvers in air and run into walls without harming themselves? Robert Full takes a look at the incredible body of the cockroach to show what it can teach robotics engineers.

- Biologist
Robert Full studies cockroach legs and gecko feet. His research is helping build tomorrow's robots, based on evolution's ancient engineering. Full bio

Even nature's most disgusting creatures
00:12
have important secrets,
00:15
but who would want a swarm of cockroaches
00:18
coming towards them?
00:19
Yet one of the greatest differences
between natural and human technologies
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relates to robustness.
00:24
Robust systems are stable in complex
00:26
and new environments.
00:29
Remarkably, cockroaches can self-stabilize
00:30
running over rough terrain.
00:32
When we put a jet pack on them,
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or give them a perturbation like an earthquake,
00:35
we discovered that their wonderfully tuned legs
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allow them to self-stabilize
00:40
without using any of their brainpower.
00:42
They can go over complex terrain like grass,
00:45
no problem, and not get destabilized.
00:48
We discovered a new behavior where,
00:50
because of their shape,
00:52
they actually roll automatically to their side
00:53
to go through this artificial test bit of grass.
00:55
Robust systems can perform multiple tasks
00:59
with the same structure.
01:01
Here's a new behavior we've discovered.
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The animals rapidly invert and disappear
01:05
in less than 150 milliseconds — you never see them —
01:07
using the same structures that
they use to run, their legs.
01:10
They can run upside down
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very rapidly on rods, branches and wires,
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and if you perturb one of those branches,
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they can do this.
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They can perform gymnastic maneuvers
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like no robot we have yet.
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And they have nearly unlimited
01:24
maneuverability with that same structure
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and unprecedented access to a variety
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of different areas.
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They have wings for flying when they get warm,
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but they use those same wings to flip over
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if they get destabilized.
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Very effective.
01:46
Robust systems are also fault tolerant and fail-safe.
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This is the foot of a cockroach.
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It has spines, gluey pads and claws,
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but if you take off those feet,
01:55
they can still go over rough terrain,
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like the bottom video that you see,
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without hardly slowing down. Extraordinary.
02:00
They can run up mesh without their feet.
02:03
Here's an animal using a normal, alternating tripod:
02:07
three legs, three legs, three legs,
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but in nature, the insects often have lost their legs.
02:10
Here's one moving with two middle legs gone.
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It can even lose three legs, in a tripod,
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and adopt a new gait, a hopping gait.
02:21
And I point out that all of these videos
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are slowed down 20 times,
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so they're actually really fast, when you see this.
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Robust systems are also damage resistant.
02:31
Here's an animal climbing up a wall.
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It looks like a rapid, smooth, vertical climb,
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but when you slow it down,
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you see something very different.
02:40
Here's what they do.
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They intentionally have a
head-on collision with the wall
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so they don't slow down and can transition up it
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in 75 milliseconds.
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And they can do this in part because they have
02:51
extraordinary exoskeletons.
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And they're really just made up of compliant joints
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that are tubes and plates
02:59
connected to one another.
03:01
Here's a dissection of an abdomen of a cockroach.
03:02
You see these plates, and you
see the compliant membrane.
03:05
My engineering colleague at Berkeley
03:09
designed with his students
03:12
a novel manufacturing technique
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where you essentially origami the exoskeleton,
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you laser cut it, laminate it,
03:18
and you fold it up into a robot.
03:20
And you can do that now in less than 15 minutes.
03:22
These robots, called DASH,
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for Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod,
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are highly compliant robots,
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and they're remarkably robust as a result
03:36
of these features.
03:39
They're certainly incredibly damage resistant.
03:41
(Laughter)
03:47
They even have some of the
behaviors of the cockroaches.
03:50
So they can use their smart, compliant body
03:53
to transition up a wall
03:55
in a very simple way.
03:58
They even have some of the beginnings
04:01
of the rapid inversion behavior
04:02
where they disappear.
04:04
Now we want to know why they can go anywhere.
04:06
We discovered that they can go through
04:08
three-millimeter gaps,
04:09
the height of two pennies, two stacked pennies,
04:11
and when they do this,
04:14
they can actually run through those confined spaces
04:15
at high speeds,
04:17
although you never see it.
04:19
To understand it better,
04:22
we did a CT scan of the exoskeleton
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and showed that they can compress their body
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by over 40 percent.
04:27
We put them in a materials testing machine
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to look at the stress strain analysis
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and showed that they can withstand forces
04:33
800 times their body weight,
04:35
and after this they can fly and run
04:37
absolutely normally.
04:39
So you never know where
04:41
curiosity-based research will lead,
04:43
and someday you may want a swarm
04:46
of cockroach-inspired robots
04:48
to come at you.
04:50
(Laughter)
04:52
Thank you.
04:59
(Applause)
05:01

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About the Speaker:

Robert Full - Biologist
Robert Full studies cockroach legs and gecko feet. His research is helping build tomorrow's robots, based on evolution's ancient engineering.

Why you should listen

UC Berkeley biologist Robert Full is fascinated by the motion of creatures like cockroaches, crabs and geckos having many legs, unusual feet or talented tails. He has led an effort to demonstrate the value of learning from Nature by the creating interdisciplinary collaborations of biologists, engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists from academia and industry. He founded CiBER, the Center for interdisciplinary Bio-inspiration in Education and Research, and the Poly-PEDAL Laboratory, which studies the Performance, Energetics and Dynamics of Animal Locomotion (PEDAL) in many-footed creatures (Poly).

His research shows how studying a diversity of animals leads to the discovery of general principles which inspire the design of novel circuits, artificial muscles, exoskeletons, versatile scampering legged search-and-rescue robots and synthetic self-cleaning dry adhesives based on gecko feet. He is passionate about discovery-based education leading to innovation -- and he even helped Pixar’s insect animations in the film A Bug's Life.