JANUARY
2007

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

1-11-07

Beetles and Ants Lightweight Battle Bots

Humans have long enjoyed competitive battles, both as participants or, certainly more frequently, as spectators. And the bloodier the battle, the better it seems! Human history is rife with such battle spectacles.

The ancient Greeks and Romans crowded large arenas to witness battles to the death between human slaves. Such battles have not always pitted human against human. Sometimes it was a human against other animals. Lions, for instance. In Biblical times, a fellow named Daniel was tossed into a lion's den and, as history has recorded, he lived to talk about it.

Humans have witnessed life-and-death battles between horse-drawn chariots and knights on horses. We flock by the millions to witness prizefights between human boxers or bullfights pitting human against bull. Although dog fights and cockfights are now illegal in most parts of the world, such spectacles have long been popular. Unfortunately, these bloody battles still exist. In some parts of the Orient, crickets have provided spirited battles for the enjoyment of human spectators. Of course, betting on such battle royales no doubt contributed to their popularity!

It is probably no surprise that in the modern world the human lust for mayhem and destruction would turn to machines to satisfy that need. Automobile demolition derbies are common events at many rural fairs. Even combines, those massive, farm grain-harvesting machines have been used in such metal-crunching events.

And now robots have entered the battle arena to entertain humans. Yes, battle robots are tearing each other to metal and plastic shreds under the admiring eyes of spectators. Robots are normally mild-mannered mechanical devices defined as machines capable of performing a variety of human tasks on command or by being programmed in advance. Such devices play major roles in the manufacturing industry.

So how did robots end up as battle machines? Motorized robots have long been under development for military uses. Even the term "robot" was first used in Karel Capek's novel "War with the Newts," where newts were mindless creatures that battled human foes.

Robots were naturals for video games. "Sonic the Hedgehog" video games featured robotic grunts of Dr. Ivo "Eggman" Robotnik. The robots were powered by living things and were called "badniks." The very first badnik was called Motobug. Other badniks included "Buzz Bomber," which resembled a wasp, and "Caterkiller," which was caterpillar-like.

Many motorized robots utilized the concept of walking on six legs in the fashion of adult insects. Robots are also fitted with antennae and often have working parts concealed under a protective shell. Robots and insects share a number of structural features. In addition, some insects, especially beetles and ants, have forward-facing jaws and horns on the head, both useful characteristics in fights between insects or robots.

Some robot toys are designed to look like rhinoceros beetles, complete with horns and six legs. Battles between these robots are won, just like with the real beetles, when one beetle gets turned over on its back or is pushed out of the arena.

There is a rhinoceros beetle robot that is described as infrared remote controlled, possessing a claw and having caterpillar traction. Another mechanical beetle robot has four legs with a swinging horn. These beetles are battle bots.

In general, the terms "ant" and "beetle" are used to describe bots that weigh less than 1 pound and between 1 and 3 pounds, respectively. These insect-inspired bots are common battle bots because their small size makes them cheaper to build.

Other robots based on characteristics of insects are also used or in development. For instance, there is a robot beetle that is a mine detector. This beetle runs on a trac, and then switches to six legs when encountering difficult terrain. Another small robot under development will transport a camera through the human intestine. It is able to stop by deploying braking feet, based on techniques used by beetles to cling to surfaces.

As it turns out, insects have inspired many robot designers. I'm not surprised. In the living world, insects are about as close as you can get to robots.

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox