But it's their ability to run over rough terrain that has researchers mesmerized.
Schmitt is collaborating with Jonathan Clark, a mechanical engineering professor at Florida State University, who studied under a leader in the field, Mark Cutkosky of Stanford University. Cutkosky has actually built robots that walk on six legs, based partly on research by Robert Full of U.C. Berkeley, an expert on animal locomotion.
Cutkosky's robots work, but they are no match for a cockroach. Or a gecko, that can walk across the ceiling, much like a cockroach. That has intrigued Clark, because the two animals are so dissimilar, yet they move in a "dynamically similar manner," according to Clark, who has built robots that can climb, sort of like a gecko.
Lots of animals are providing what Schmitt calls "bioinspiration" to scientists and engineers, who marvel at how even some relatively simple organisms can do complex maneuvers, seemingly with little effort. But Schmitt's true love remains the cockroach.
"Cockroaches are incredible," he said. "They can run fast, turn on a dime, move easily over rough terrain, and react to perturbations faster than a nerve impulse can travel."
Schmitt said he is optimistic that he will live to see the day when bioinspiration allows engineers to mimic the maneuverability of a roach.
He sees hundreds of robotic roaches, scampering across a battleground, climbing effortlessly over debris, and wasting so little energy on locomotion that they can blanket the area with a wireless communications network. Or they might detect land mines, saving countless lives, or warn of the presence of biological hazards.
That's a tall order to fill, even for a cockroach.