A Moment of Science

Rocket Roach

There are few insects more reviled than the cockroach. Maybe we’re just jealous: cockroaches were around long before humans, and will continue to do their thing long after our species has gone the way of the woolly mammoth. And, as it turns out, roaches are also far more agile than even the best human athletes. Experiments have shown that cockroaches are able to regain their balance almost instantaneously when knocked off balance.

Researchers Robert Full and Devin Jindrich at the University of California, Berkeley found a novel approach to testing cockroach dexterity and balance. In what sounds like a kid’s fantasy experiment, they attached miniature rockets to the insect’s backs. Instead of blowing them to smithereens, the one-inch-long, gunpowder filled tube exploded with just enough force to knock the roaches off balance.

Watching super slow motion tape of the stumbling roaches, the researchers determined that the insects were able to right themselves and recover their stride within ten milliseconds–or putting it another way: a hundredth of a second–which is faster than a nerve fires. The upshot is that the roach’s incredible balance has nothing to do with its nervous system. Rather, roach legs are spring-like, able to bounce back like pogo sticks when compressed.

Such discoveries have made waves in the burgeoning field of biomorphic robotics, whose practitioners pattern robot designs on the mobility strategies of living creatures. Scientists and engineers are already hard at work improving a robot built to mimic the cockroach’s amazing agility.

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