Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
SAF Archives  search ask the scientists in the classroom cool science


Swim Like a Fish

Body Builders

Robots Have Feelings, Too

Go, Team!

Viewer Challenge
in the classroom

Natural Born Robots:

When designing a speedy insectoid robot, what better to imitate than a cockroach, an insect that has survived successfully for 300 million years? Engineers at Case Western Reserve model their robot on the Blaberus discoidalis, a roach that demonstrates superior locomotion. There's just one problem: the robotic roach has a lot of catching up to do with the real one.

Curriculum Links
National Science Education Standards
Activity: Robot Insect Zoo





Artificial Intelligence (AI), programming


biomechanics, simple machines


motion capture, robotics

(Please visit the Subject-Area Search feature on this website for related Frontiers shows and activities!)


5-8: Structure and Function in Living Systems; Reproduction and Heredity; Regulation and Behavior; Diversity and Adaptations of Organisms
9-12: Molecular Basis of Heredity; Biological Evolution; Behavior of Organisms
5-8, 9-12: Abilities of Technological Design; Understandings About Science and Technology
5-8: Science and Technology in Society
9-12: Science and Technology in Local, National and Global Challenges
5-8: Science as a Human Endeavor; Nature of Science
9-12: Science as a Human Endeavor; Nature of Scientific Knowledge


Many of today's robot builders are taking their cues from nature and designing robots modeled on living creatures. Because of their superior mobility and stability, six-legged insects have been a popular choice for robots, but today's innovative robot builders are also inspired by dogs, bats, dolphins, cats, fish and other animals.

Researchers who want to engineer robo-creatures record the animal's motion on video, then analyze it digitally (motion capture). In this activity, you'll observe and draw insect movements, then use your observations to build a robot insect model.

By studying specific parts of an insect and substituting common items for them, you can build a whimsical model of a robot insect for a robotic zoo. Use common, everyday materials found around your school or home. Have fun!

Part 1: Observing the Insect
  • Select an insect to observe that's easy to find and not dangerous. Use an insect capture box ("bug box") with a magnifying lid to help you observe the insect. Be sure to release the insect when you're finished with the project.

  • Pay particular attention to the form and function of the insect's unique features. For example, focus on how a praying mantis uses its front legs to capture food or how an ant carries a piece of a leaf or other food.

  • Carefully draw the insect, making notes on anything special you notice about its features. If you are drawing a grasshopper, for example, describe in detail how the legs move when it jumps. (If possible, videotape the insect in motion, then play back the tape to study it.)

praying mantis

Part 2: Building the Model

  1. Now that you've studied the insect's form and function, make a clean, detailed drawing to use as a blueprint for your model. Identify and label the body parts.

  2. List the major parts of your insect and their functions. For example:

    mantis chart

  3. For each body part, think of a common item that either works like the part or looks like it, or both. For example, you could use forks for the praying mantis legs and a small folding hand fan for its wings.

  4. Collect the parts and build your insect.

  5. Display your model with others in a "robot insect zoo."

  • Expand the zoo and build models inspired by other animals (birds, spiders, reptiles or fish, for example). See for some robotic animals currently on exhibit.

  • Place flour or cornstarch on a cookie sheet and have an insect walk across it. Examine the pattern to see if it helps you better understand how insects walk.

  • Scientists and engineers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science have built a 319 robotic roach that could be used to locate people in collapsed buildings or to clean up nuclear waste. Other insectoid robots and microflyers are currently being developed for the military and medical uses. Research and brainstorm other applications of insect robots.

  • To learn about MIT's biologically inspired robotic roach, see

  • Today's robot designs are inspired by real insects. What insects would you like to use as robot models and why? Consider ants, grasshoppers, dragonflies, crickets. Which insects would not make good robots?


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.