WATCH: High-speed Robot Inspired by Cockroach, Lizards Walks on Water

The latest invention at the Ben-Gurion University bio-inspired robotics lab is a tiny machine that can race across the water surface, swim, and crawl over rough terrain too

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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David Zarrouk's AmphiSTAR.
David Zarrouk's AmphiSTAR.Credit: Dr. David Zarrouk / Photographs Photographs © Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

It’s a bird, it’s a plane – not even close. It’s a cockroach, it’s an iguana – warmer. It’s a bio-inspired amphibious robot created by scientists just because – you got there.

AmphiSTAR can skitter over the surface of the water at high speed, swim and also crawl on rough terrain. If you tell it to, that is. This is not one of those sentient robots with balefully glowing red eyes like in B-movies. AmphiSTAR only goes where you tell it to go, but it can do so fast. The amphibious machine was created by David Zarrouk of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, and his grad student Avi Cohen

Like other inventions at Zarrouk’s BGU robotics lab, the machine was inspired by living beings: in this case, cockroaches and lizards. Who wouldn’t want a high-speed robot inspired by the movements of cockroaches and lizards?

Frankly, watching it hare along, it is eerily reminiscent of a cockroach. It’s true that neither cockroaches nor most reptiles normally skitter atop the water, but it’s the way they move that captured the scientists’ attention.

AmphiSTAR may not have intelligence per se, but it has an advanced control system, Zarrouk tells Haaretz. The robot has three motors. Say you tell it to go straight ahead at high speed: its control system “manages” the motors in keeping with the circumstances. Misaligned motor output would mean that the machine races off askew, falls over, and so on.

Engines are big things that need fuel; these tiny motors are electrical, he explains.

How exactly does AmphiSTAR progress? Not on six legs or on four feet, but on propellers – yes, on land too. In the water, if the propellers rotate slowly, the robot swims. If the propeller speed is accelerated, the robot rises to the surface and zips madly along it, as much as 3.5 meters (over 11 feet) per second.

On land, it also progresses on the propellers, which are angled to act as angled rimless wheels, he says. However, there its speed is constrained to a “mere” 1.5 meters per second. Still very fast.

Studying the picture carefully reveals a truth the university didn’t mention, but confirmed by Zarrouk: its rather Starship Enterprise-y flotation devices are made of emptied ice pop baggies. Now you know.

Asked what it’s actually good for, Zarrouk suggests several potential applications – such as searching disaster areas after flooding or tsunami: the tiny robot can boldly go where nobody in their right mind would, forging through and over puddles, mud and sundry dirt.

The same applies to agriculture, he says. It could be perfect for sowing, including muddy areas for the cultivation of the likes of rice. A tractor weighs a great deal and does damage wherever its wheels go. This thing wouldn’t be noticed, though you’d need a lot of them in the stead of each tractor.

Zarrouk and Cohen presented the frankly delightful AmphiSTAR and its control system last week at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, BGU said.

The water-walking robot cockroach with ice-pop flotation devices is far from the first animal-inspired robot developed at Zarrouk’s lab. SAW, another stunning member of the STAR family of robots, is shown in the video below waging its way through a pig’s intestine.

The name SAW could be misleading – it isn’t mangling the swine’s gut; it’s traveling harmlessly inside it.

Replying to Haaretz’s question “Yuck, what on earth?” Zarrouk quickly reassured that no pigs were harmed for the sake of science in this case – the pig had been slaughtered at a kibbutz for its meat and they received its innards to test said robot.

“We aim to create robots that can be swallowed for medicinal purposes,” Zarrouk explains.

That brings to mind the Israeli company Given Imaging, which invented the breakthrough camera-in-capsule. But that’s a passive machine that takes images and passes out the natural way. Zarrouk’s invention, once completed and if picked up by industry, is aimed at an active role. Its movement was inspired by biological wave motion. Which means what? Which means snakes.

Asked about the next stage for the lovely AmphiSTAR, Zarrouk points out that he runs a research lab, and this is a prototype. They don’t make products per se. That’s it. They did their research and it runs on water like a basilisk lizard, swims and creeps on land. Maybe somebody someday will find a use for it.

Here’s a video of a robot invented by Zarrouk et al at UC Berkeley that will look rather too familiar.