A robotic cockroach, designed by a research team at Johns Hopkins University, uses a flexible, sensor-laden antenna to send signals to the wheeled robot's electronic brain, enabling the machine to scurry along walls, turn corners, and avoid obstacles.

Most robotic vehicles that are sent into dangerous locations rely on artificial vision or sonar systems to find a safe path. Low light and polished surfaces can cause problems for these operations, so using the sense of touch is a good alternative, said Noah J. Cowan, assistant professor of engineering. Like the robots, cockroaches can move skillfully through a dark and obstacle-filled room, using their antennae to sense objects in their path. Cowan assigned the task of building the antenna to Owen Y. Loh, an undergraduate student.

A prototype was used in critical experiments, and Loh has since fabricated a more advanced version of the antenna, made of cast urethane encased in a clear plastic sheath. Embedded in the urethane are six strain gages sensors that change resistance as they are bent. The antenna are calibrated so that certain voltages correspond to certain bending angles as it touches walls or other objects. The robot's controller receives this data, which allows it to sense its position in relation to the wall and maneuver around objects.

Brett L. Kutscher, a former Provost's Undergraduate Research Award recipient who recently finished his master's degree thesis in Cowan's lab, is assisting in the testing of the new antenna. The eventual goal with the antenna design is to provide a new generation of robots with an enhanced ability to move safely through dark and hazardous locations.