Current Issue

Mar. 2, 2011

Vol. 111, No. 8

alumni profile

John Schmitt *01

Running-robot designer

By Maya Rock ’02
Published on February 23, 2011

Résumé: Published in 2009 a much-talked-about paper in “Bioinspiration and Bio­mimetics” introducing ideas for robot locomotion inspired by cockroaches. Assistant professor at Oregon State University’s School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manu­facturing Engineering. Princeton doctorate in mechanical and aerospace engineering.  

THE ADVANTAGES OF COCKROACHES

A 2008 paper by Robert Full at the University of California, Berkeley, detailing the advantages of cockroach locomotion intrigued Schmitt, who specializes in bioinspired robotic design. Cockroaches run over rough terrain without hesitation, undaunted by drops and heights that would foil humans. One reason is that when cockroaches run, their motion is more reflexive than that of human beings, who think more when negotiating rough terrain. A proponent of bioinspiration — examining nature for design ideas — since his days at Princeton, Schmitt decided to look to the roach.  

BUILDING A BETTER ROBOT

Schmitt comes up with strategies to improve robotic motion based on the physiology of roaches and guinea hens (who also run surprisingly well) and then tests ­different simulations on a computer. Jonathan Clark, an engineer at Florida State University, builds the robot following Schmitt’s design. Schmitt points out that many of today’s most impressive robots work only in the specific environments for which they were created. He aims to create robots that can handle a variety of terrains.

SPRINTING TO THE FUTURE

Schmitt was delighted when a one-legged robot attached to a boom proved to be a fast mover. A paper on this robot is under review at Bioinspiration and Biomimetics. The impact of a running robot could be huge: It could be a superior spy, dashing up walls while transmitting audio and video data. It also could help in earthquake recovery efforts, sifting through rubble too dangerous for humans to go near. People’s initial reactions to hearing about the unlikely source of Schmitt’s inspiration, he reports, is “Ewww ... ” After all, cockroaches have a history as a problem for mankind. But when it comes to robots, the pest may offer some ­solutions.  

Photo courtesy John Schmitt *01


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CURRENT ISSUE: Mar. 2, 2011
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Video: Cockroach inspiration
See how the roach's motion spurred ideas for a robot's movements

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