Rescue robots need to imitate cockroaches

It’s possible that if you were trapped under a pancaked skyscraper after an earthquake, or in a mine that had just collapsed, you’d be totally fine with getting rescued by a giant robot cockroach. What are you going to do? Say, “No, thanks, I’m good, send something cute”?

Even if you did request something more charismatic, odds are it couldn’t reach you. The American cockroach, says a paper out today, is perfectly adapted for getting into tiny spaces a human-shaped rescuer might not, thanks to a collapsible exoskeleton and really creepy mode of locomotion. The cockroach, it turns out, is a good model for a rescue robot. The researchers even built a prototype. It skitters.

Yes, it had to be cockroaches. “We are not entomologists. We also think they’re disgusting,” says Robert Full, who works on biomechanics and animal locomotion at UC Berkeley and is lead author on the article, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “But they can teach us bigger principles.” As is typical for insects, cockroaches have an exoskeleton—overlapping plates of a tough material called chitin held together with a flexible membrane. In the wild, that flexibility lets American cockroaches run about 5 feet per second, more than 3 mph…

Don’t blame the cockroaches for their extraordinary adaptability to that space between your floorboard and your wall. That’s not what their skill set evolved for. It actually keeps them safe. “Cockroaches like to be against walls, against surfaces, and the more surfaces they can contact, the more comfortable they are,” says Coby Schal, an entomologist at North Carolina State University. It’s called “thigmotaxis,” and the roaches feel most OK when they perceive a slow, light brushing against bristles that grow from their bodies…

That collapsible exoskeleton is yet another physiological marvel. Not only does it flex and expand—allowing for developing insects to grow and molt, and bloodsucking insects like bedbugs to accommodate the meal they have made out of your precious life essence—it also shunts their mass around. “In a cockroach the blood flows in an open cavity called a hemocoel,” Schal says, “so it can deform its body by moving blood from one part to another.” It’s like a disgusting, insectile, armored balloon…

Gross, sure, but it also makes a great model for robot mobility…That’s why you might not mind if a robot bug comes to rescue you. A Terminator wouldn’t be able to get there at all. “It’s not like the Darpa robotics challenges where you go down a hall, down stairs, skip over some rubble. No, no, no,” Murphy says. “You’re going into spaces too small for a human or a dog to get into. Or maybe they’re on fire…”

If you still can’t handle the idea of someday being carried to safety by a swarm of chittering, exoskeleton-wearing robot bugs, Full has you covered. He’s also working on a giant crab.

Something, anything, saving my butt is welcome. I don’t even care if it looks like Ted Cruz.

Pentagon chooses science over Know-Nothing politics on climate change


Click to enlarge — Republican conference on climate change in 2100

A bit over a year after identifying climate change as a “significant challenge” for the US military, the US Department of Defense has given its top officials orders for handling the hazards posed by a warming world.

The boring-but-important 12-page document issued in January tells the armed service chiefs and top civilian officials to identify how climate change will affect their missions, figure out how to manage any risks it poses, and factor those into their planning. It gives specific tasks to various Defense Department offices and regional commands, from determining how higher sea levels or longer droughts affect US bases to what new gear might be needed to work in a thawing Arctic.

❝”Although this looks very bureaucratic in nature, I would actually give the department full credit for it,” said David Titley, a retired rear admiral who served as the Navy’s top oceanographer. “I think this is one of the more significant steps they’ve done, because they’ve linked that high-level strategy down to a daily to-do list.”

Titley said the new order means the Pentagon “is now thinking seriously” about whether American soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines “have the right tools, the right equipment, the right training, and the right risks for a changing environment…”

The Navy is already trying to figure out how to protect its Atlantic fleet headquarters at Norfolk, Virginia — the world’s largest naval installation — from the two-pronged threat of rising seas and a sinking shore. Norfolk is already seeing periodic coastal flooding from a rising ocean, and Titley said 2012’s Hurricane Sandy showed how badly a big storm could hit vital urban systems like the New York subways that few had thought of as vulnerable…

But Holland said Pentagon officials are still struggling to figure out how other expected changes — to food, water, and energy supplies, increases in extreme weather, and an increase in refugees — will affect operations overseas…

The new directive is aimed at shifting that mindset…

Titley appeared at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing that attacked climate scientists. The hearing was called by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the GOP presidential candidate who insists that no global warming has occurred since 1998 — an assertion contradicted by the findings of US and international science agencies.

“Senator Cruz was asking me which is more important, climate or ISIS?” Titley said. “And what I told Senator Cruz at the hearing back in December was we don’t get to pick and choose. We’re a big country, and we have to deal with both … Mature superpowers have to deal with more than one thing at a time.”

Mature politicians should do the same. Unfortunately, Cruz, the ignoranus electorate he represents, the rightwing political clot he leads not only ignores science, history and maturity – they prefer the politics of fear and ignorance as their best bet to gain power in the United States.

Billionaire surprised that American voters are unhappy — this is news?

As income inequality and healthcare costs rise in the United States and as an economic slowdown may be on the horizon, one of the world’s richest men expressed surprise that U.S. voters seem so angry in advance of the 2016 presidential election. Speaking at a gathering of corporate and government leaders in Switzerland, Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman told Bloomberg Television that he is bewildered about why Americans seem so discontented.

I find the whole thing astonishing and what’s remarkable is the amount of anger whether it’s on the Republican side or the Democratic side,” the Wall Street mogul said at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “Bernie Sanders, to me, is almost more stunning than some of what’s going on in the Republican side. How is that happening, why is that happening?”

On the eve of the conference, the nonprofit group Oxfam released a report showing that the richest 62 people on the planet now own more wealth than half the world’s population. In the United States, recent data from Pew Research shows the average American’s median household worth has stagnated, as the median household worth of upper-class Americans increased 7 percent. Schwarzman, though, expressed surprise that people are enraged…

Schwarzman’s private equity firm, Blackstone, manages — and makes fees from — billions of dollars of pensioners’ assets, and was recently fined by federal regulators for not properly disclosing fee terms to its investors. The investors harmed by Blackstone’s conduct included public retirement systems in California, Florida and New Jersey.

Schwarzman has donated $100,000 to a super PAC supporting Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign and reportedly organized a meet-and-greet session between John Kasich and Wall Street executives, but Schwarzman said on Wednesday that he would ultimately support Donald Trump should his fellow Republican billionaire win the GOP nomination for president. In recent years, Schwarzman has made national headlines likening tax increases on the wealthy to the Nazi invasion of Poland.

Same as it ever was.