Running cockroaches start to recover from being shoved sideways before their dawdling nervous system kicks in to tell their legs what to do, researchers have found. These new insights on how biological systems stabilize could one day help engineers design steadier robots and improve doctors’ understanding of human gait abnormalities.
In experiments, the roaches were able to maintain their footing mechanically—using their momentum and the spring-like architecture of their legs, rather than neurologically, relying on impulses sent from their central nervous system to their muscles.
"The response time we observed is more than three times longer than you’d expect," said Shai Revzen, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, as well as ecology and evolutionary biology, at the University of Michigan. Revzen is the lead author of a paper on the findings published online in Biological Cybernetics. It will appear in a forthcoming print edition.
"What we see is that the animals’ nervous system is working at a substantial delay," he said. "It could potentially act a lot sooner, within about a thirtieth of a second, but instead, it kicks in after about a step and a half or two steps—about a tenth of a second. For some reason, the nervous system is waiting and seeing how it shapes out."
Revzen said the new findings might imply that the biological brain, at least in cockroaches, adjusts the gait only at whole-step intervals rather than at any point in a step. Periodic, rather than continuous, feedback systems might lead to more stable (not to mention energy-efficient) walking robots—whether they travel on two feet or six.
Robot makers often look to nature for inspiration. As animals move through the world, they have to respond to unexpected disturbances like rocky, uneven ground or damaged limbs. Revzen and his team believe that patterns in how they move as they adjust could give away how their machinery and neurology work together.
"The fundamental question is, ‘What can you do with a mechanical suspension versus one that requires electronic feedback?" Revzen said. "The animals obviously have much better mechanical designs than anything we know how to build. But if we could learn how they do it, we might be able to reproduce it."