Crickets might one day save the lives of disaster victims. That's what Johns Hopkins students are hoping, after they and their professor videotaped and intricately mapped how the graceful creatures use aerodynamics to perform incredible jumps and delicate landings.

The engineering students have studied spider crickets for over eight months, recording videos of the creatures at high speeds, resulting in what might be the coolest video of crickets dancing to Johann Strauss you've ever seen. 

Those videos could be the blueprints for future microrobots, which would mimic the crickets' movements, but also carry sensors that would allow them to identify living creatures trapped in rubble and other debris, during natural disasters.

"You can imagine a situation where there's an earthquake, and you want to send in an army of microrobots to search for injured people...," explained lead researcher and professor Rajat Mittal. "You can imagine how complicated that environment would be. A small microrobot, inspired by these insects, could potentially navigate this terrain in a much more effective manner."

The secret is in the bugs' posture. When taking off, they dive forward with the arch and directionality of a ballerina, or a diver. But once they reach the peak of their trajectory, they immediately switch postures, preparing to land, rather than gradually assuming a landing posture. That was a surprise to the engineers, and something they never could have caught without the high-speed footage gathered by the patient students.

This isn't the first time physicists and engineers have turned to our insect relatives for robotics advice. Bees and roaches have both been replicated for use as "microair vehicles," with great success. They may have future applications in building, warfare, and especially disaster response. The finest engineering in the world can't hold a candle to millions of years of evolution.

"It's kind of beautiful, in a really weird way," sophomore mechanical engineering researcher Emily Palmer reflected. A way "that you wouldn't expect to see beauty most of the time."

The researchers will present their findings Nov. 23 during a poster session at the 68th annual meeting of the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics.

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