To uncover just how cockroaches balance, the research team, led by Shai Revzen, now an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, put a cockroach on a tray that was connected to elastic that stretched and contracted. When the tray zoomed to one side, the cockroach was forced to re-balance. It was like walking on a bridge and having it suddenly move 30 feet to one side.
Revzen and his team used video cameras and a computer to trace where the cockroach stepped. By looking carefully at where the roach was in its step-cycle, the researchers could tell whether its nervous system had kicked in to change it. (A separate experiment tested roaches with electrodes attached to their legs to tease out that pattern).
That was when they found that the adjustments came at the end of a step, instead of in the middle. That meant that the nervous system was relying on continuous feedback from the cockroach's surroundings.
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That's were inspiration for new designs for robots comes in. Right now a lot of robots have sensors in their feet to tell where they're stepping. The sensor sends information to the robot's brain, which then adjusts the feet. But the cockroaches do this more efficiently by keeping the brain out of it, at least until they have finished stepping.