Researchers have learned that running cockroaches recover from a shove before their dawdling nervous system kicks in to tell their legs what to do. 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 nervous-system delay the researchers observed is substantially longer than scientists expected. The observation runs contrary to assumptions in the robotics community, where computers stand in for brains and the machines' movements are often guided by continuous feedback to that computer from sensors on the robots' feet.

Periodic, rather than continuous, feedback systems may lead to more stable (and energy-efficient) walking robots — whether they travel on two feet or six.


Also: Read other Mechanics & Machinery tech briefs.