Dancing spider crickets can help build better robots

When it comes to designing better robots, engineering students from Johns Hopkins University have found inspiration in an unlikely source: spider crickets.

These insects can jump about 2.5 feet and land on their feet. It doesn’t necessarily sound all that impressive, until you consider that that’s almost 60 times the spider cricket’s body length. If a spider cricket were the same size as a human, then it’d be one hell of a football player, capable of a 100-yard long jump.

According to a release from the university, the team is unified by a belief that non-human creatures will be some of the best models for robots made to accomplish specialized tasks, citing potential examples like Mars rovers that move like caterpillars or drones with wings like hummingbirds.

Tiniest little ballerinas 

The research team used three high-speed video cameras rolling at 400 frames per second to carefully study the movements of these bugs, hoping to find clues about how they can jump so far without losing their balance—clues that could possibly translate into robotics.

“Because they don’t have wings, the main things they use during their ‘flight’ to stabilize their posture is their limbs,” said Emily Palmer, a sophomore mechanical engineering major who did testing for the study. “We’re looking at the way the spider crickets move their bodies and move their limbs to stabilize their posture during a jump.”

“Ultimately, the application would be in really tiny robots,” she added.

The researchers noted that, when slowed down, the movements of the crickets’ legs resembled movements reminiscent of classical dance, and that the insects put a lot of work into streamlining their bodies.

In the early part of the jump, the insects streamline their bodies as much as possible to maximize the distance of their jump. In the “flight” portion of the jump, they carefully move their antennae and legs about in order to stabilize themselves and prepare for a safe and quick landing, should they have to jump again immediately afterward to avoid a predator.

“These videos have actually been quite eye-opening,” said Rajat Mittal, the mechanical engineering professor supervising the undergraduate research team. “[It’s] only when you slow these critters down that you really start to see the beauty and the intricacy of their movement. The analogy that comes to mind is of a ballerina performing a ballet. It’s a very beautiful, controlled, intricate motion.”


Feature Image: Steve Fernie/Flickr