Fake cockroaches are set to save our planet

There’s always something interesting going on in Oxford, which is why we tipped up at the West Oxford Academy last night to listen to Ravi Vaidyanathan, a senior lecturer in bio-mechatronics at Imperial College in Londinium. The subject of his talk?

Insect movement and robot design: cockroaches, coupling and complexity.

An engaging speaker, Vaidyanathan didn’t personally decapitate the poor cockroaches the boffins are modelling their plans on but it appears that this particularly long-lived insect doesn’t actually need a brain at all, because it has dispersed some of its intelligence throughout its thorax and abdomen. Not having a head, however, means it can’t eat, which is a bit of a long term problem.

“If a cockroach was my size [he is a six footer, Ed], it could run at 200 miles per hour. It’s the speed of a racing car. If a cockroach is decacipated, it will die of starvation. It has lost its CPU, it’s been through some trauma. If we built a robot like this, everything would be solved.”

So the boffins are building robots based on cockroaches and appear to be having some success, said Vaidyanathan.  They’re even building flying cockroaches and swimming cockroach prototypes. “Cockroaches have springs embedded in their systems,” he said. He proposed the interesting anti-Buddhist hypothesis that cockroaches are not animals and don’t have souls.  His robots don’t have souls but they do have embedded OSes.

Soon the little robots will have GPS and wi-fi built into their systems, following the general principle of Moore’s Law. But unlike Intel, Vaidyanathan is not convinced that they need billions of transistors to function.

Batteries, however, are a real problem. Vaidyanathan dilated at length about this problem, which can’t really be sorted out by harvesting. The things need motors to function – motors need batteries.  

What about the bill of materials (BOM) for Vaidyanathan’s little roach doppelgangers? He said you need about 200 quid and a student you can abuse for a year. Commercial availability? Not that soon. Applications? Military, and medical, primarily. Challenges? The boffins haven’t yet come up with a material that can mimic muscle. Work proceeds at MIT, Harvard and Imperial, plus the US military has come up with some funding, because these little roach wannabes could perform some useful functions at the micro level, you won’t be surprised to hear.

“Cockroaches are the future,” said Vaidyanathan. But, he warned: “We are light years away from doing what insects do today.”  It’s not just the cockroach – boffins are also studying arachnids as well as insects. Intel, of course, is studying the non-aerodynamic bumblebee and believes it can match a bee’s intelligence by 2020.